Neverland was under siege.
Every day, there were people trying to break into the fabled kingdom to claim a piece of it. Some of them wanted to stay. Some wanted to own it. And some just needed a place to hide.
Gemma wasn’t sure she belonged to any of those, but she wanted to fight to protect Neverland with Cole by her side. It was their duty to. So what if they belonged to the Otherworld? Gemma had grown up listening to her mother’s stories about Neverland. She was as much a part of this place as Tinkerbell was. She knew Neverland like the back of her hand, how to navigate her way around it. She knew about the Lost Boys, the mermaids, the Indians, and the pirates.
And Cole? He had just discovered this place, not so much a paradise any more than a safe haven these days for Otherworlders like him. He had seen Neverland through Gemma’s eyes and fallen in love with it. He relished the sound of lagoon water gurgling in the background, punctuated by the hoots of the Lost Boys as they dove in. He breathed in the sweet scent of wild blooms and wood smoke that threaded through the air. He kept his ears peeled for the soft melody that trailed through random bursts fairy dust and cloud wisps. This was where Gemma had grown up, so he loved it by association.
But this was never their paradise to roam or sanctuary to seek refuge in. The natives were growing resistant to the likes of them and “that Wendy girl”, whom they believed seduced Peter Pan and stole him away to the Otherworld. And speaking of Peter Pan, he was nowhere to be seen. Cole had heard stories about the bold leader of the Lost Children, but he had to say he was rather disappointed at the way he had abandoned Neverland the moment it started to crumble.
They had overstayed their welcome, and it was high time to leave before the most nefarious of Neverlanders hunted them down. They said his hook could slice a man’s head clean off before he could plead for mercy. Captain Hook had loathed Otherworlders ever since the Darling children wreaked havoc here, but he loathed them more now that Neverland was an ailing world, porous and susceptible to the ills of Otherworld.
Gemma and Cole headed towards the harbour, trying to keep their footsteps as light as possible. Flying was out of the question tonight – fairy dust would be a dead giveaway. This was the only other passage out of Neverland, and it had to be tonight, when the Council of Neverlanders were setting out to find Peter Pan and the cocktail birds were flying home south to roost.
Neverland was a different world at night, when the darkness was ripe as a plum and shadows danced between the trees. At this hour, it felt like the stories she had heard were as real as the speckled dirt on their feet, and Neverland’s magic was both a friend and a foe that could readily turn on them like the Lost Children and mermaids had.
This was no longer the Neverland she knew. The air was sick with the smell of sweet rot and brine, and the sickle moon shone overhead with anaemic will. Even the mermaids were taking ill, because the waters were poisoned – there were none of them to be seen tonight. Neverland was too sick for her to salvage, but it felt cowardly to just leave before accomplishing anything.
“Cole,” she murmured. “Maybe we should stay on. At least for a while longer. Neverland needs us.”
“No, Gem. This is beyond our ability.” He gestured at their surroundings. “Look around you. This world is dying, and its citizens are chasing us out. It’s time for us to leave.”
Indeed, she and Cole were standing in a fog too thick and heavy to be lifted with the feeble speck of fairy light Nix the fairy had given them. Whatever that was light and pure about this world had died.
They craned their necks for the boat that Nix had arranged for them, keeping warm by pressing close to each other.
When at last the boat arrived, sighing as it cut through the gloom, Cole gave Gemma’s hand a tug. “You said it yourself, Neverland takes away more of you the longer you stay here,” Cole said. “We don’t belong here.”
“Indeed you don’t,” said a silky voice.
They whirled around to find a figure emerging through the fog. His slow smile was as unmistakable as the gleaming curve of metal where his right hand ought to be.
Gemma wasn’t quite sure which of them broke the silence. In the encroaching darkness in which they were trapped, his name resounded like doom.
Based on her mother’s descriptions of Captain Hook, Gemma expected to see a scarred, ragged man with hatred in his eyes and vengeance in his hand. But all she saw was a tall, slim man in a long, dark coat. His face was set in an eerie, unreadable calm.
Cole stepped in front of Gemma. “We were just about to leave.”
“What’s the hurry? The Neverlanders might have turned ornery, but I have use for you two here.” He stepped off the boat. That was when Gemma noticed the blood crusted on his coat.
Hook’s smile was curved like the blade of a knife. “I’d like to make an offer: find me Peter Pan and you walk out of here alive.”
Gemma shared a look with Cole. There was no leaving tonight.