“HE’S DYING, PRINCESS.”
Words froze in my throat. I stared at Ironhorse, silently pleading with him to be wrong. He gazed back with a sorrowful expression. “No.” I shook my head, fighting the persistent tears that stung my eyes. “I won’t believe that. There has to be a way to save him.”
“I AM SORRY, PRINCESS.” Ironhorse bowed his head. “I KNOW YOUR
FEELINGS FOR THE WINTER PRINCE, AND I WISH I COULD GIVE YOU BETTER
NEWS. BUT THERE IS NO WAY TO FORCEFULLY REMOVE THE BUGS ONCE THEY
HAVE BEEN IMPLANTED. NOT WITHOUT KILLING THE HOST.” He sighed, and his tone softened, though the volume did not. “GOODFELLOW IS RIGHT. THE WINTER
PRINCE IS FAR TOO DANGEROUS. IF HE ATTACKS AGAIN, WE CANNOT HOLD
“What about Virus?” I pressed, unwilling to give up. “She’s the one controlling the bugs. If we take her out, maybe her hold on him will—”
“Even if that were the case,” Puck interrupted, “the bug would still be inside him. And with no way to get it out, he’ll either go mad, or be in so much torment that he would be better off dead. Ash is strong, Princess, but that thing inside him is killing him. You saw it, you heard what Virus said.” His brow furrowed, and his voice went very soft. “I don’t think he has much time left.”
The tears pressing behind my eyes finally spilled over, and I buried my face in the pillow, biting the fabric to keep from screaming. God, it wasn’t fair! What did they want from me? Hadn’t I given enough already? I’d sacrificed everything—family, home, a normal life—for the stupid greater good. I had worked so hard; I was trying to be brave and mature about everything, but now I had to watch while the thing I loved most was killed in front of me?
I couldn’t. Even if it was impossible, even if Ash killed me himself, I would still try to save him.
The room had grown very quiet. I peeked up and saw that everyone except Puck had left, slipping from the room to let me come to terms with myself, and the decision looming over my head, in peace.
Seeing me glance up, Puck tried catching my gaze. “Meghan…”
I turned away, pressing my face into the cushions. Anger and resentment boiled; Puck was the last person I wanted to see, much less talk to. Right now, I hated him.
“Go away, Puck.”
He sighed and rose from the chair, coming to perch on the sofa next to me.
“Well, you know that never works.”
The silence stretched between us. I sensed that Puck wanted to say something but couldn’t seem to find the right words. Which was odd; I’d never known him to hesitate about anything.
“I won’t let you kill him,” I finally muttered after a few minutes of quiet. There was a lengthy pause before he answered. “Would you ask me to watch you die?” he murmured slowly. “Stand by while he puts a sword through your heart? Or, maybe you want me to die instead. You could just tell me to stand still while Ash chops off my head. Would that make you happy, Princess?”
“Don’t be stupid!” I bit my lip in frustration and sat up, wincing as the room spun for a moment. “I don’t want anyone to die. But I can’t lose him, Puck.” My anger abruptly drained away, leaving only a hollow despair. “I can’t lose you, either.”
Puck put his arms around me and pulled me close, gently so as to not jolt my wounded arm. I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes, wishing I were normal, that I didn’t have to make these impossible decisions, that everything would be all right again. If wishes were horses…
“What do want me to do, Princess?” Puck whispered into my hair.
“If there’s any way we can save him…”
He nodded. “I’ll try very hard not to kill his royal iciness if we meet again. Believe it or not, Princess, I don’t want Ash dead, any more than you do.” He sniffed. “Well, maybe a little more than you. But…” And he pulled back to look me in the eye. “If he puts you in danger, I won’t hold back. That’s my promise. I won’t risk losing you, either, understand?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, closing my eyes. That was all I could ask. I’ll save you, I thought, as drowsiness stole over me and my mind drifted. No matter what, I’ll find a way to bring you back. I promise.
I was nearly asleep, surrendering to the exhaustion stealing all my coherent thoughts, when a slamming door jerked me awake and Puck’s arms tightened around me.
“Meghan Chase.” Kimi’s voice cut across the room, clipped, flat and mechanical. I looked up and my stomach dropped away.
Kimi and Nelson stood beside the door like soldiers at attention, a posture so strange for both of them that I didn’t recognize them at first. As one, their heads turned, and they gave me an empty stare. The same look Ash had turned on me back in SciCorp.
“Oh, no,” I whispered. Puck went stiff with shock.
“Our Mistress has a message for you, Meghan Chase.” Kimi took a short step forward, moving like a robot. “‘Congratulations for breaking into SciCorp and, more impressive, breaking out again. You have my admiration. Unfortunately, I cannot have you running amok, making plans to return for the scepter, as I know you will. I’ll be moving it tonight to a safer location. If you come back to SciCorp, I’m afraid you’ll find it quite empty. Oh, and by the way, I’m also sending Ash to kill your family. They’re in Louisiana, right?’”
I sucked in a breath, and the blood drained from my face. Kimi’s expression didn’t change, but her voice turned mocking. “‘So you have a choice now, my dear. Come back for the scepter, or run home and try to stop Ash. You’d better hurry. He’s probably halfway to the bayou by now.
“‘One more thing!’” she added as I leaped to my feet, drowsiness forgotten. Heart pounding, I glared at her. Robot Kimi gave me an empty smile. “‘I want you to remember, this is not a game, Meghan Chase. If you think you can waltz into my lair and try to take what is mine without repercussions, you’d best think again. People will get hurt because of you.’” Kimi stepped forward and narrowed her eyes. “‘Do not screw with me, child. Let this be a little reminder of what can happen when you play with the big girls.’”
Kimi spasmed, spine arching back, mouth open in a silent scream as she twitched and thrashed. A moment later, Nelson did the same, limbs jerking wildly, before they both collapsed to the floor.
Puck was beside Kimi instantly, rolling her over. The little half-phouka’s eyes were open, gazing sightlessly at the ceiling, and she didn’t move a muscle. I bit my lip, my heart pounding. “Are they…dead?”
He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “No. At least, I don’t think so. They’re still breathing, but…” He frowned, squinting at Kimi’s slack expression. “I think their brains have short-circuited. Or the bugs are keeping them in some sort of coma.” He shook his head, looking up at me. “Sorry, Princess. I can’t do anything for them.”
“Of course you can’t, darling.” Leanansidhe breezed through the doorway, her face a porcelain mask, eyes glowing green. “Fortunately, I know a mortal doctor who might be able to help. If he cannot revive the streetrats, then there is no hope for them.” She turned to me, and I tried not to cringe under that unearthly gaze. “You are leaving, I presume?”
I nodded. “Ash is out there,” I said. “He’s going after my family. I have to stop him.” I narrowed my eyes, staring her down. “Don’t try to keep me here.”
She sighed. “I could, darling, but then you would be a complete mess and of no use to us. If there is one thing I’ve learned about humans, it’s that they become absolutely unreasonable when it comes to family.” She sniffed and waved her hand. “So go, darling. Rescue your mother and father and brother and get it over with. My door will still be open when you come back. If we’re still alive, that is.”
“PRINCESS!” Ironhorse bashed the door open, skidding to a halt in the middle of the room, breathing hard. “ARE YOU HURT? WHAT HAS HAPPENED?”
I gazed around for my sneakers, wincing as a bright talon of pain clawed up my arm. “Virus sent Ash to kill my family,” I said, dropping to my knees to peer under the couch. “I’m going to stop him.”
“WHAT ABOUT THE SCEPTER?” he continued, as I pulled out my sneakers and stuffed my feet into them, gritting my teeth as my arm throbbed with every movement. “WE MUST RETRIEVE IT BEFORE VIRUS HAS IT MOVED. SHE IS
VULNURABLE NOW AND WILL NOT BE EXPECTING US. NOW IS THE TIME TO
“No.” I felt pulled in several directions at once, and tried to stay calm. “I’m sorry, Ironhorse. I know we have to get the scepter, but my family comes first. Always. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“VERY WELL,” Ironhorse said, surprising me. “THEN I WILL COME
Startled, I looked up at him, but before I could reply, Grimalkin interrupted me.
“A quaint idea,” the cat mused, leaping onto the table, “and exactly what Virus is hoping for. We must have scared her quite a bit for her to react so dramatically. If we abandon the mission now, we might never find her again.”
“He’s right.” I nodded, ignoring Ironhorse’s scowl. “We have to split up. Ironhorse, you stay here with Grim. Keep looking for the scepter and Virus. Puck and I will go after Ash. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“I DO NOT LIKE LEAVING YOU ALONE, PRINCESS.” Ironhorse raised
his head in a proud, stubborn manner. “I SWORE I WOULD PROTECT YOU.”
“While we were looking for the scepter, you did. But this is different.” I stood up and met his burning red eyes. “This is personal, Ironhorse. And your mission has always been the scepter. I want you to stay behind with Grim. Keep looking for Virus.” He opened his mouth to argue, and I spit out the last words. “That’s an order.”
He blew smoke from his nostrils like a furious bull and turned away. “AS
YOU WISH, PRINCESS.”
His voice was stiff, but there was no time to dwell on feelings of guilt. I turned to Puck. “We have to get to Louisiana fast. How do we get out of here?”
He glanced at Leanansidhe. “Don’t suppose you have any trods to Louisiana from here, do you, Lea?”
“There’s one to New Orleans,” Leanansidhe replied, looking thoughtful. “I just adore Mardi Gras, darling, though Mab tends to hog the spotlight every year. Typical of her.”
“That’s too far away.” I took a deep breath, feeling time slip away from me.
“Isn’t there a trod that’s closer? I need to get home now.”
“The Briars.” Puck snapped his fingers. “We can go through the Briars. That will take us there quickly.”
Leanansidhe blinked. “What makes you think there is a trod to the girl’s house through the Briars, dove?”