Escape from the Underworld Chapter 1


Chapter 1

Harper’s heels gouged a deep furrow in the loamy soil as she skidded around a broken tree, hoping any obstacle would slow the Seelie hunting party behind them. A small stand of green trees offered cover, but it was a quarter mile away. Elves clad in slate-blue tunics used hand signals to coordinate the company of sylphs, goblins, and others. Each much faster than Harper. 

The Phooka’s canine form shimmered and snapped into the shape of a jet-black raven. “It just had to be Seelie. Pompous, self-right—”

Harper followed the Phooka’s gaze to see the blond elves bound effortlessly over a fallen log. “I thought the Seelie were supposed to be good Fae.”

The Phooka uttered a corvid squawk and banked high into the sunless Underworld sky. Harper found the gloaming unsettling, the strange light coming from every direction in the skyless world. 

Within seconds, the Phooka folded his wings and dove, landing beside her without missing a step. “Shows what you know.” He continued their conversation right where they left off, even as he melted back into his wolf form. “That small patch of intact forest is scarcely enough to hide a large dog, but it’s our only chance for cover. If we get there first, we can at least try a surprise attack.”

Barely two weeks had passed since Harper and the Phooka, pursued by Gwyn ap Nudd, had leapt through Badb’s collapsing portal into the Underworld. Right now she’d give anything to wake up on her mom’s shabby 1970s couch, grab a cup of coffee with Emilio, and laugh about how this had all been an elaborate nightmare. But it was horrifyingly real, and, like a some cruel joke, Harper’s family—not to mention her entire world—depended on her rallying the Tuatha to stop Badb’s army.

But she was no closer to locating Manannan Mac Lir and his mystic boat. The Waveskimmer was perhaps the only vessel capable of the voyage to the Undying Lands, the homeland of the Celtic gods. Nor had she any leads on either the Dagdha’s Cauldron or more pieces of the Lia Fail. All she’d done so far was flee endless waves of Fae intent on capturing her to enslave her and take her magic. 

Harper pushed her legs faster and trailed behind the Phooka. “They’ve got to be tracking us somehow.” She risked a glance over her shoulder and immediately wished she hadn’t. The Seelie had closed half the distance between them. The terrain was ruined, with gnarled trees spaced too far apart as though they woke up one day and refused to be a forest anymore. Each carved their own area and clawed at the sky, as if they could shred the clouds. 

The staccato barked orders of their Seelie pursuers shifted to yelps of fear. Harper risked another backward glance, eyes darting back and forth like a trapped animal, seeking whatever it was that could terrify Seelie warriors. And she staggered to a lurching halt.

Their enemies had broken off pursuit and scattered, losing any semblance of organized ranks. Breath seized in her chest. “Phooka.” She barely rasped his name.

With an exasperated yip, the Phooka cantered back. When he lifted his chin, Harper’s shock was mirrored on his face and his canine jaw dropped. “Sweet merciful crap.”

A jet-black galleon, complete with golden sails and oars jutting from the sides, soared gracefully over the tops of the blackened trees. Fae scurried around the deck, rolling cannons into place. 

Harper ducked behind a tree that stank of mold and sulfur. For the moment, they were safe since everyone’s attention was riveted on the magnificent boat hovering above. “What’s a ship doing up there?”

“Pirates.” The Phooka’s tongue lolled from his grin as though mention of pirates fully explained a flying ship. “Here to steal from the rich-ass Seelie gentry, I bet. If I hadn’t chosen a life in the Green World, I might have turned pirate. All the singing, fab eyeliner, and rum.”

A spark of intense blue enchantment and a thunderous bang sent Harper diving, her hands clamped over her head. The pirates launched a gleaming silver sphere at the Seelie, who scattered. 

When it smashed into the earth, it didn’t explode or do anything at all. At first. Then fingers of luminous teal magic erupted, arced to nearly every Seelie, and lodged in their chests. Elves and sylphs screamed and fell to their knees while the magical bolts flared brighter for a moment before whipping back into the sphere. 

Next, the cannonball did something Harper never thought a cannonball should ever do. It leapt up and zoomed straight back into the cannon that had fired it. The diminutive Fae aboard the vessel swung the weapon around and fished out the ball while its victims writhed and tried unsuccessfully to stand.

With a single shot, the pirates had decimated the raiding party. Three out of two dozen were left, located near Harper and the forest patch. Certainly better odds, but still plenty dangerous.

The Phooka pinned his ears back and galloped for the edge of the woods. “Show time’s over. Back to running for our lives.”

The three Fae, a lumbering troll, and two elves raced behind them. Harper shifted her backpack and sprinted after the Phooka. “We’re not the only ones with the same brilliant idea.”

Dense foliage filled the small forest, reminiscent of the lush Underworld that the Phooka had spoken of. They found a spot that provided adequate cover for them to fight, run away, or hide.

In seconds, the ornate galleon hovered overhead, just visible between gaps in the canopy. Harper had lost track of the Seelie. From the ship, gravelly voices chattered and a deeper voice bellowed. 

“I count five left. Cannon’s no good with these blasted trees in the way. Ready the grounders.”

Harper edged closer to a tree trunk, eager for even thin cover. “Five? I counted three.”

The Phooka slunk to her side, hackles up. “You and me make five.”

“But we’re clearly not Seelie.”

Golden eyes rolled and the Phooka pointed at the sky. “Pirates.” When Harper shrugged and gave him a lip curl, he sighed. “All they’re after is magic to sell to the highest bidder. Half the time, back to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts they stole it from.” He wiped a fake tear from his cheek. “So beautiful.” He patted his chest with a paw. “Gets you right here.”

A dozen ropes dangled, bearing miniature Fae akin to thinner goblins, winged flowery sprites, and ambulatory saplings. The saplings reminded Harper of Alan, who’d given his life to end the battle of the Erimus tower. 

Neither Seelie nor pirates had spotted them yet. Harper motioned the Phooka close and pressed her face into his silky soft ear. “We should move farther under the trees. Let the pirates deal with the Seelie.”

“Good plan. Except afterward the pirates come after us.”

Harper was already slinking around the trunk, heading for deeper cover. “Better to fight one enemy than two.”

A teal energy bolt, smaller than the ones that arced from the cannonball, whizzed past, barely missing her shoulder. Harper yelped and scrambled backward a half step while the Phooka careened sideways, growling. 

A deep, gravelly bellow sent a flock of colorful birds sailing to the skies. Harper hunched lower into the prickly shrubs and bent close to the Phooka. “Think they got the troll.”

Two more magical teal strikes flashed in the shadowy wood. The Phooka and Harper remained standing after both Sidhe screamed and thudded as they fell. 

“That way. Powerful magic with one of them. Lighting the tracker up brighter than the Green World sun.”

Harper again pressed her face to the Phooka’s ear. “They’re tracking us. How?”

“Doesn’t matter. We should run for it.”

“And go where? We’d be exposed in minutes.”

The snap of bramble underfoot startled Harper.

Guttural speech rang a few feet away. “Both right here. One is your basic Fae, but the other… This can’t be right.”

Wrinkles creased the Phooka’s long snout. “Basic?” He laid his ears back.

A woman’s voice, sweet like the lullaby of a brook, answered her pirate compatriot. “What did the tracker say?”

“Tuatha magic.”

The Phooka’s low growl intensified as he crouched in a ready position. Harper slid the silvery, curved elven blade she’d scavenged from the last Seelie raiders who’d found them. “On three.” Harper nodded out the count and the two of them sprang at their pursuers.

But the pirates outsmarted them. The instant they popped from the underbrush, a ring of smiling faces and various sharp weapons pointed at them. 

A short Fae with brown, wrinkled skin cupped an elaborate device in his palm. A restless golden needle jittered like it wanted to leap from its crystal casing and lodge in Harper’s chest. The coppery gears visible inside gleamed with etched scrollwork designs, glowing faintly. “Not Tuatha, Dellyn. Just a light elf.” The four-foot tall Fae, a trow, if Harper recalled the Phooka’s Fae species tutorial, scratched the tuft of chestnut-color hair on his head.

Harper forgot she’d used the Fomorian stone to disguise her humanity. Her features would resemble the Sidhe, with pointed ears and a lighter frame.

The woman had silvery fur and a catlike face. Her ears flicked in annoyance as she glared at Harper. Simple tan pants and a loose ivory shirt with black boots matched the clothing the other pirates wore.

“It’s the sword she has.” The feline pirate stretched short fingers to the Cliamh Solais dangling at Harper’s hip. 

Since Harper had abandoned the battle with Badb, the barely audible whispers emanating from the weapon had become white noise, always there but seldom relaying anything specific. But the instant the Fae touched the grip of the sword, a piercing screech split the air. Everyone’s palms slapped over their ears.

“Toirmiscthe!” The foreign word rang inside Harper’s head loud as a fire alarm, and an arc of lightning zapped the paw of the feline Fae. With a low hiss, she backed away from Harper. As the Fae retreated, a whisper slithered through Harper’smind. “Forbidden.”

Harper held her arm at shoulder level, afraid to touch the sheathed blade. She glanced at the Phooka’s flattened ears and narrowed eyes and gulped. This was probably bad.

Unfazed, the Phooka tore his eyes from Harper, pricked his ears up, and let his pink tongue loll out as he barked a single laugh. “Go on, cait sith, touch it again. Let’s see if curiosity actually kills the cat.”

Dellyn bared her teeth with a hiss and receded behind the shorter brown Fae with the large leathery ears. He cradled his head in his hands and groaned.

A brown-skinned elf uttered a quizzical sound and bent from the waist to examine Harper’s sword. His neon-green hair slid forward and swung like a pendulum inches from a patch of blue wildflowers. “I know this weapon. The Sword of Light. She’s no Sidhe. This woman really is a Tuatha.”

The cait Sidhe batted a paw at him. “Nonsense, Shalgast. I don’t sense glamour. And the Tuatha abandoned us for the Undying Lands a hundred years ago.”

The little trow rubbed his long, pointed nose. “Not all of them.”

“Besides Brigid, I meant.”

The ebony wolf grinned his canine grin as his edges wavered and become for a single moment a shimmering dark cloud. Then the Phooka minced up to Shalgast on his shiny black hooves. “Half Tuatha. And, as you can see, Nuada Silver Hand himself was her mentor. Left her his musty old sword. Pretty much useless, if you ask me.”

A popping sound not unlike someone repeatedly shooting a gun split the air, followed by a hissing roar punctuated by thunder. Harper’d heard nothing similar before, but its effect on the pirate crew made her mouth suddenly dry.

The tip of the trow’s long, crooked nose trembled as grey eyes roved between her and his pirate friends. “Nihilrot. It’s here.”

Cold started in Harper’s chest and bloomed along her limbs. The world around them warped and distended like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. A cresting wave, the noise traveled toward their position, and fast.

Harper shrank from it. “What is that?”

The trow’s expression of disbelief and disgust was mirrored on the other pirates’ faces. “Ye must be some highfalutin’ privileged bastards if ye’ve never seen a nihilrot storm.” He brandished his short scimitar. “Least ye Seelie scum’ll be torn apart with me.”

Battle lines disappeared as everyone fled the leading edge of the distortion. Harper felt the ground shift beneath her feet, causing her to sink to her ankles. Her brows shot into her hairline like they were jerked by an invisible string, but screams ahead tore her focus from her feet. 

Shalgast screeched when his leg sank up to the hip in the undulating earth and an arm poised overhead expanded like a balloon. The Phooka leapt high and clamped the elf’s rough brown sleeve in his teeth and pulled him free of the nihilrot’s distortion. 

Harper recoiled. She’d seen the nihilrot’s aftereffects before. Everywhere the nihilrot touched Shalgast’s skin was now leathery black, same as the Sidhe she fought in the Erimus Tower. The poor man slapped at the twisted flesh as if it was aflame, his face contorted into a grimace.

Snaps and cracks announced another wave of the storm, and the earth collapsed beneath Harper’s feet. Soil cascaded into a sudden, new abyss, dragging her into the pit below.

Legs pumping like pistons in an awkward crab walk, Harper clutched at anything that might stop her descent into the undulating distortion. A massive stone peeked out of the rubble and she clasped it, chest heaving.

 The disturbance was first empty then filled the landscape with things that hadn’t been there before. A new species of tree, a stone shed, even a statue of an elven woman.

Sometimes the nihilrot felt as insubstantial as high mountain air, and a second later, its gravity pulled at her hard enough to make inhaling another breath a struggle. The sensation was most similar to a roller coaster's acceleration. Only a thousand times worse.

Everything the nihilrot reached bloomed and decayed. Was young, then desiccated with age. Pockets of the Underworld aged a millennium in a second, while others remained untouched. Her mind struggled to make sense of the experience. Like someone popped time and space into a blender and hit ‘pulse.’

The tempest’s popping sound turned out to be air rushing into the empty space where something had disappeared into the void.

“For Danu’s sake, Harper, don’t look down! There’s a reason that’s cliche movie dialog.” The wolf shape Phooka bounded to the lip of the widening chasm.

The surly trow from the battle above screeched and listed to the side, arms pinwheeling to keep his balance. “Biggest one I’ve seen yet.” He regained his footing beside the boulder.

Several things happened at once. Over the trow’s shoulder, a second nihilrot cell formed in the sky and hurtled toward the more terrestrial storm. Nearby trees’ leaves turned autumn red before disintegrating in a cloud of glimmering dust. As the nihilrot descended, the edges of it reached the pirates. Harper watched as half Dellyn’s face and one arm became those of an infant, then wrinkled with age, before she could scramble back from the edge. Everywhere the nihilrot had touched, the cait Sith was scarred black.

During the fray, the Phooka had shifted to the form of a wyvern and crouched, ready to take flight and rescue Harper. But if he did, he’d dive right into the overhead turbulence.

“Stop!” Harper jabbed her finger above the Phooka’s head.

“That’s hardly fair.” He yelled and flattened himself. “The gap’s narrowing.” His eyes zipped side to side at the two fronts closing like the jaws of a demon.

Harper hoisted herself farther up the crumbling bank and shouted as loud as she could over the roar of the storm. “Everyone. Get to the lower storm’s edge.” 

She didn’t know if it would work, but the airborne nihilrot seemed attracted to its earthbound sister. The only shelter they could reach was the lip of the widening chasm, where hopefully they could avoid the coalescing cyclones.  

As the edges of the upper storm brushed the ground, the boulder sank, throwing the trow tumbling. Harper whipped out an arm and grabbed him by the ankle, stopping his momentum. The Fae screeched with every exhale.

“What the hell are you doing?” The Phooka’s eyes were wide with panic.

Harper shot him an annoyed look right before the added weight sent her sliding into the growing abyss. 

“Noooo!” The Phooka disappeared behind the receding rim.  

Harper couldn’t recall where she learned what to do if you were ever falling off a roof, but she did it. Never losing her grip on the trow’s ankle, she flung her other arm and both legs wide, pressing herself against the edge of the growing ravine.  

They slowed, but the little trow kept screeching. Beneath, the nihilrot pulsed with a heavy energy while it consumed the Underworld.

Both of Harper’s hands were immobilized, one gripping the Fae, the other pressed into the dirt. “Hey, friend, what’s your name?”

The brown-skinned trow regarded her, never stopping his rhythmic, high-pitched squeal. 

He’s lost it. Harper had experience walking her mother through panic attacks. She took a long, deep breath and painted on her most reassuring smile. “Friend, look at me.” He did. That was a start. “Very good. Okay, this might sound crazy, but I’m going to need you to breathe. Do it with me.” She lifted her brows and waggled a nod at him.

“Yeeep. Yeeeeeep. Yeeeeeep.” The trows breathy wails continued, but he focused on her.

Harper took in a slow, exaggerated breath and jerked her chin at the trow showing he should do the same. No good. The little guy was scared enough he probably couldn’t comprehend.

A loud pop made both Harper and the Fae shriek. And a tree burst into existence to her right. With a cry, she flung her hand toward an exposed root. 

Her fingers wound around it, but the joint weight of Harper and the trow dragged the root along her palm and blood seeped from a multitude of scrapes.

Her blood dripped onto the loose soil. Wherever it touched, strands of white fungus exploded. Another drop of blood and more fungus sprang to life. The same mycelium Glani had used to heal her in the Fir Bolg village. It strained its long fingers toward her.

Releasing soon as an illustrated Special Edition on Kickstarter!