The hallway I’d entered was lined with Knights, all armed to the teeth and standing at grim attention. Unlike the rest of the palace, this wing hadn’t been built from stone. The walls were of some kind of dense, twisted live wood, like the tallest, most solid thicket ever, and the high ceiling was formed of an archway of branches. Climbing white rosebushes punctuated the hallway at regular intervals, their blooms so tightly packed together that if I looked at them through the corner of my eye, they looked like white marble pillars.
I was pretty sure the floor under my feet was dirt, but it was carpeted by a plush layer of pristine white rose petals. How they remained so pristine when they weren’t on their bushes and people walked on them, I don’t know. The hall was lit by glowing chunks of translucent white rock, kind of like salt lamps, only there was no electricity and no lightbulb. I could only assume they were lit by magic, because this hall did not look like a good place to light a fire.
There was a single doorway at the end of the hall, and it was guarded by a pair of gargantuan trolls. I caught my breath at the sight of them, a shiver running down my spine. I’d seen drawings and paintings of trolls before, but the only one I’d ever seen in person was Lachlan, who wore a human glamour. I liked it better when I didn’t know what he really looked like beneath that glamour. Paintings couldn’t do their size and malevolence justice. Paintings couldn’t capture the soulless black eyes that didn’t blink. Maybe it wasn’t much of a shocker that the Sidhe didn’t socialize with trolls after all.
I shook my head, trying to clear the fog of terror that tried to gather around me. The trolls might look terrifying, but they weren’t monsters. Lachlan was one of the nicest Fae I knew, warm and friendly and loyal to a fault. Looks weren’t everything. Besides, the trolls couldn’t see me, so they weren’t dangerous.
I started tiptoeing down the hall, trying not to disturb the rose petals as I walked. The Erlking’s brooch might keep all these guards from noticing the petals moving, but I didn’t want to leave a trail that they might notice after I’d passed. I had a feeling that if they sensed there might be an intruder, I would be in deep, deep trouble despite the brooch’s spell.
I was sweating and practically vibrating with tension by the time I made it to the end of the hall. My lizard brain kept telling me not to get any closer to those trolls, and every step was a fight. It was probably stupid—the Knights with their magical skills were much more dangerous than the trolls—but I couldn’t convince myself of that, and I wondered if what I was feeling was the effect of some kind of spell.
Not that it mattered. I had to get past the trolls, no matter how intimidating they were. I glanced quickly at my watch to see how much longer I was going to be invisible. I had eight minutes before I’d have to reactivate the spell again, and if I could just get myself moving, maybe I’d be in position to force the Queen to listen to me by the time it wore off, and I wouldn’t have to prick myself for the gazillionth time.
Knowing I had to hurry, I slung my backpack forward and groped for the gun. Better to have it in my hand and ready when I walked through that doorway. I told myself I wasn’t stalling, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.
I checked to make sure the gun was loaded, then double-checked to make sure it was ready to fire. I shoved a couple of extra bullets in my pocket for easier access. Then I forced myself forward again.
I let my breath out slowly as I moved into reach of the trolls, but they didn’t react to my presence. They might as well have been made of stone for all the life I saw in them.
My hand was shaking as I pushed the door open, but still none of the guards moved or showed any sign of noticing me. I closed it quietly behind me, then turned to face the room.
At first, I couldn’t see much, because the lights were very low. They were the same kind of lights I’d seen out in the hall, but their glow was much dimmer, leaving most of the room in shadow. I blinked a couple of times as my eyes adjusted to the gloom.
Directly in front of me was a ginormous four-poster bed, mounded with pillows. And lounging amongst all those pillows was a drop-dead gorgeous woman with curly red hair that reached to her waist. She was smiling contentedly, her eyes heavy-lidded as she held a white silk sheet to her chest in a halfhearted show of modesty. She was obviously naked underneath it, and in the shadows at the foot of the bed, I could see the silhouette of a man pulling on a pair of boots.
My first thought was: Awkward! This was not a good time to be bursting in on the Faerie Queen. (Not that there ever really was a good time.) My second thought was: Thank God I didn’t get here earlier.
And then dread coiled in my gut as my mind fully processed what I’d just seen.
The man at the foot of the bed stepped out of the shadows, his boots making a familiar metallic clinking sound with each step. He leaned casually against one of the bedposts, crossing his arms over his chest and grinning at me.
“We meet again, Faeriewalker,” the Erlking said, his eyes twinkling with laughter at my expense.
I was totally and completely screwed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Titania sit up, the sheet sliding down and showing me more of her than I wanted to see.
“She’s here?” the Queen gasped.
I stood by the doorway, frozen like a scared rabbit caught in the Erlking’s sights. I pointed my gun at him, but I’d seen him take a bullet to the head with barely a blink. The gun wouldn’t save me.