I looked behind us. Ash was advancing steadily as well, his eyes glassy and terrifying.
A click echoed through the hall and miraculously, one of the side doors swung open.
“How predictable,” Grimalkin sighed, appearing in the doorway. We gaped at him, and he regarded us with amusement. “I thought you might need a second way out. Why is it always up to me to think of these things?”
“I would kiss you, cat,” Puck said as we crowded through the doorway, “if we weren’t in such a hurry. Also, the hairballs could be unpleasant.”
I slammed the door and leaned against it, gasping as we took in our newest surroundings. A vast white room stretched before us, filled with hundreds upon hundreds of cubicles, creating a labyrinth of aisles. A low hum vibrated in the air, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of tapping keys. Humans sat at desks within each cubicle, dressed in identical white shirts and gray pants, staring glassy-eyed at the monitors as they typed away.
“Whoa,” Puck muttered, looking around. “Cubicle hell.”
Simultaneously, the tapping stopped. Chairs shifted and groaned as every single human in the room stood up and, as one, turned in our direction. And, as one, they opened their mouths and spoke.
“We see you, Meghan Chase. You will not escape.”
If I hadn’t been filled with a hollow, bone-numbing despair, I would’ve been terrified. Puck cursed and pulled out his dagger just as a boom shook the door behind us.
“Looks like we’re going straight through,” he muttered, narrowing his eyes. “Grimalkin, get moving! Rusty, clear us a path!”
Grimalkin bounded into the maze, dodging feet and weaving through legs as the hordes of zombie-drones shuffled toward us. Ironhorse pawed the tile, put his head down and charged with a roar. Drones flung themselves at him, punching and clawing, but they bounced off or were thrown aside as the angry Iron fey stampeded through the hall. Puck and I followed in his wake, leaping over downed bodies, dodging the hands that grabbed for us. Someone latched on to my ankle once, but I let out a shriek and kicked him in the face, knocking him back. He fell away clutching my shoe, and I quickly shook the other off, running barefoot through the hall.
The maze of aisles and cubicles seemed to go on forever. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the mob of zombie heads bobbing above the cubicle walls, following us.
“Dammit,” Puck snarled, following my gaze, “they’re coming fast. How much farther, cat?”
“Here,” Grimalkin said, darting around a cubicle. The room finally ended with a stark white wall and a door in the corner, marked with an Exit sign. “The emergency stairs,” he explained as we rushed forward in relief. “This will take us to the street level. Hurry!”
As we charged the door, Ash stepped out of an aisle next to us, appearing from nowhere. There was no time to think or scream a warning. I threw myself to the side, hitting the wall with a jolt that knocked the wind from my lungs. Time seemed to slow. Puck and Ironhorse bellowed something from far away. A blinding stab of pain shot up my arm. When I grabbed for it, my palm came away slick and wet. For a second, I stared at my fingers, not understanding.
What happened? Did Ash…do this? Ash cut me?
Stunned, I looked up into the glassy eyes of the Unseelie prince, his sword raised for the killing blow.
For just a moment, he hesitated. I saw the sword waver as his arm trembled, a flicker of torment crossing his face. Just a moment, before the blade came flashing down, but it was enough time for Ironhorse to lunge between us, shoving Ash away. I heard the hideous screech of metal as the blade ripped into Ironhorse’s side and he staggered, almost going to his knees. Then Puck was pulling me to my feet, yelling at Ironhorse to get moving, and I was being dragged through the door, screaming at Puck to let me go. Ironhorse lurched to his feet and followed, dripping a thick black substance behind him, his wheezing breaths echoing down the stairwell. As we escaped SciCorp and fled into the streets, the last thing I remembered was watching the door close behind me on the stairs and seeing Ash’s face through the window, a single tear frozen on his cheek.
In my dream, he was kneeling in the dead grass beneath a great iron tree, head bent, dark hair hiding his face. Around us, a swirling gray fog blanketed everything beyond a few feet, but I could sense another presence here, a cold, hostile being, watching me with cruel intelligence. I tried to ignore it as I approached the figure beneath the tree. He was shirtless, his pale skin covered in tiny red wounds, like punctures, down his spine and across his shoulders. I blinked. For a moment, I could see the glistening strings of wire sunk into his body, coiling up and vanishing into the fog. I quickened my pace, but with every step I took, the body under the tree moved farther away. I started to run, stumbling and panting, but the fog was drawing him back into its possessive embrace, claiming him for its own. Desperately, I called to him. He raised his head, and the look on his face was beyond despair. It was utter defeat, hopelessness and pain. His lips moved wordlessly, then the fog coiled around him and he was lost.
I stood there shivering as the mist grew dark, and the other presence hovered at the edge of my consciousness. As the dream faded and I sank into oblivion, I could still see his final words, mouthed to me in desperation, and they chilled me like nothing else. Kill me.
CONSCIOUSNESS RETURNED slowly. I clawed myself up from sleep, feeling dizzy and confused as the world came into focus. Thankfully, I recognized my surroundings almost immediately. Leanansidhe’s mansion: the foyer, if the huge fireplace was any indication. I lay on one of her comfortable sofas, dressed in slacks and a loose-collared shirt. Someone had taken off the slinky business suit, and of course I’d left my heels back in SciCorp.
“What happened?” I murmured, struggling to sit up. A blinding flare of pain stabbed up my arm and shoulder, and I gasped.
“Easy, Princess.” Suddenly Puck was there, pushing me back down. “You lost a nice amount of blood—it made you woozy. You passed out on our way here. Just sit still for a minute.”
I looked at the thick gauze wrapped around my arm and shoulder, a faint pink stain coming through the bandage. It hadn’t even hurt until now. A knot tightened in my stomach as hazy memories pushed their way to the surface. My throat closed up, and I suddenly felt like crying. Pushing those feelings away, I took a shaky breath and focused on the present.
“Where’s Ironhorse?” I demanded. “And Grim? Did everyone get out okay?”
“I AM FINE, PRINCESS.” Ironhorse, back in his more human form, peered over the couch at me. “A LITTLE LESS THAN WHEN WE STARTED, BUT I WILL LIVE. MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT I COULD NOT PROTECT YOU FULLY.”
“Really?” The door opened and Leanansidhe entered the room, followed by Grim and two brownies bearing a tray with mugs. “I would have a few more regrets than that, darling. Meghan, dove, try to drink this. It should help.”
I struggled to sit up, gritting my teeth against the pain. Puck knelt beside the couch and eased me into a sitting position, then handed me the mug the brownies offered. The hot liquid smelled strongly of herbs, making my eyes water. I took a cautious sip, made a face, and swallowed it down.
“Kimi and Nelson?” I asked, forcing down more of the stuff. Gah, it was like drinking potpourri in hot water, but I could feel it working as it slid down my throat—a warm drowsiness stealing through my system. “Are they here, too?”
Leanansidhe swept around the couch, trailing smoke from her cigarette holder. “Haven’t checked in yet, darling, but I’m sure they’re fine. They’re smart kids.” With a flourish, she sat in the opposite chair and crossed her legs, watching me over her cigarette. “So, before that kicks in, dove, why don’t you tell me what happened in there? Grimalkin told me some of it, but he wasn’t there for the whole operation, and I can’t get a cohesive story from this pair—” she waved her cigarette at Ironhorse and Puck “—because they’re too busy worrying over you. Why couldn’t you get the scepter, darling? What happened in SciCorp?”
The memories flooded in, and the despair I’d been hiding from descended like a heavy blanket. “Ash,” I whispered, feeling tears prick my eyes. “It was Ash. She has him.”
“Virus has him,” I continued in a daze. “She put one of her mind-control bugs inside him, and he attacked us. He tried…tried to kill us.”
“He’s the one guarding the scepter,” Puck added, collapsing in a chair. “Him and about two dozen nasty Thornguards, and a whole building of Virus’s little human drones.”
He shook his head. “I’ve fought Ash before, but not like this. Whenever we dueled, there was always a small part of him, deep down, that wasn’t serious. I know his royal iciness, and I knew he really didn’t want to kill me, no matter how much he boasted otherwise. That’s why our little feud has lasted so long.” Puck snorted and crossed his arms, looking grave. “The thing I fought today wasn’t the frosty Ice prince we all know and love. There’s nothing there anymore. No anger, no hate, no fear. He’s more dangerous now than he ever was before, because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”
Silence fell. All I could hear was the faint sound of Grimalkin sharpening his claws on the sofa. I wanted to lie down and cry, but the herbs were kicking in, and my depression was giving way to a numbing exhaustion. “So,” Leanansidhe ventured at last, “what will you do now?”
I stirred, fighting the drowsiness. “We go back,” I murmured, looking at Puck and Ironhorse, hoping they would back me up. “We have to. We have to get the scepter and stop the war. There’s no other way around it.” Both nodded gravely, and I relaxed, grateful and relieved that they would follow me on this. “At least we know what we’re up against now,” I continued, grabbing for a faint ray of hope. “We might have a better chance the second time around.”
“And the Winter prince?” Leanansidhe asked softly. “What will you do with him?”
I glanced at her sharply, about to tell her that we would save Ash and I didn’t like what she was implying, but Puck beat me to it.
“We have to kill him.”
The world screeched to a halt. Slowly, I turned my head to stare at Puck, unable to believe what I just heard. “How could you?” I whispered. “He was your friend. You fought side by side. And now you want to cut him down like it was nothing!”
“You saw what he did.” Puck met my eyes, beseeching. “You saw what he is now. I don’t think I can fight him without holding back. If he attacks you again—”
“You don’t want to save him,” I accused, leaning forward. My arm throbbed, but I was too angry to care. “You don’t even want to try! You’re jealous, and you’ve always wanted him out of the way!”
“I never said that!”
“You don’t have to! I can see it on your face!”