“Okay, so we found her,” Puck mused, pressing his nose against the glass.
“And it looks like she hasn’t gathered her whole army quite yet, which is nice. So, how do we get to her?”
Ash made a quiet noise and drew back.
“You don’t,” he muttered. “I will.” He turned to face me. “For all she knows, I’m still under her control. If I can get close enough to grab the scepter before she figures out what happened—”
“Ash, no. That’s way too dangerous.”
He gave me a patient look. “Anything we try will be dangerous. I’m willing to take that risk.” His hand came up, fingers brushing the spot where Puck had stabbed him. “I’m still not completely recovered. I won’t be able to fight as well as I normally do. Hopefully, I can fool Virus long enough to get the scepter from her.”
“And then what?” I demanded. “Fight your way out? Against those masses?
And Virus? What if she knows you don’t have the bug anymore? You can’t expect to—” I stopped, staring at him, as something clicked in my head. “This isn’t about getting the scepter, is it?” I murmured, and he looked away. “This is about killing Virus. You’re hoping to get close enough to stab her or cut off her head or whatever, and you don’t care what happens next.”
“What she did to me was bad enough.” Ash’s silver eyes glittered as he turned back, cold as the moon overhead. “What she made me do, I will never forgive. If I am discovered, I will at least create a big enough distraction for you to slip in and grab the scepter.”
“You could die!”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“It does to me.” I stared at him in horror. He really meant it. “Ash, you can’t go down there alone. I don’t know where this fatalistic crap is coming from, but you can stop it right now. I’m not going to lose you again.”
“SHE IS RIGHT.”
We looked up. Ironhorse stood on the other side of the glass, watching us. His eyes glowed red in the darkness. “IT IS TOO DANGEROUS. FOR YOU.”
I frowned. “What are you talking—”
“PRINCESS.” Abruptly, he bowed. “IT HAS BEEN AN HONOR. WERE
THINGS DIFFERENT, I WOULD GLADLY SERVE YOU UNTIL THE END OF TIME.” He looked to Ash and nodded, as it suddenly dawned on me what he was implying. “SHE THINKS
THE WORLD OF YOU, PRINCE. PROTECT HER WITH YOUR LIFE.”
“Ironhorse, don’t you dare!”
He whirled and took off, oblivious to my cries for him to stop. My heart clenched as he approached the second skylight, and I watched helplessly as he gathered himself and jumped…
The glass exploded as he crashed into it, shattering into a million sparkling pieces. Gasping, I looked through the skylight to see the glittering shards rain down on the crowd below. Screaming and snarling, they looked up, covering their eyes and faces as the massive iron horse smashed into their midst with a boom that shook the building. Roaring, Ironhorse reared up, blasting flame from his nostrils, steel hooves flailing in deadly arcs. The room erupted into chaos. Once they recovered from their shock, Thornguards and wiremen surged forward to attack, flinging themselves at Ironhorse, ripping and clawing.
“We have to get down there!” I cried, rushing toward the broken skylight only to have Ash catch my arm.
“Not that way,” he said, pulling me back to the unbroken window. “The distraction has already been launched. We cannot help him now. Our target is Virus and the scepter. You should stay here, Meghan. You have no magic and—”
I yanked my arm from his grip. “You did not just bring that excuse up again!”
I snarled, and he blinked in surprise. I glared at him. “Remember what happened the last time you went off without me? Get this through your stubborn head, Ash. I’m not staying behind and that’s final.”
One corner of his mouth twitched, just a little. “As you wish, Princess” he said, and glanced at Puck, who was leering at us both. “Goodfellow, are you ready?”
Puck nodded and leaped onto the skylight. I scowled at them both and clambered onto the glass, ignoring Puck’s hand to help me up. “How do you expect us to get down there?” I demanded as I clawed myself upright. “Go right through the window?”
Puck snickered. “Glass is a funny thing, Princess. Why do you think ancient people put salt along windowsills to keep us out?” I looked down and saw Virus directly below us, shouting and waving the scepter above her head, her attention riveted on the battle and Ironhorse.
Ash leaped onto the skylight, drawing his sword as he did. “Look after Meghan,” he said, as glamour began shimmering around both him and Puck. “I’ll take care of Virus.”
“What—?” I started, but Puck suddenly swept me into his arms. I was so surprised I didn’t have time to protest.
“Hold on tight, Princess,” he murmured, as a shimmer went through the air around us, and we dropped straight through the glass like it wasn’t there. We plummeted toward the overhang, a shriek escaping my throat, but it was swallowed up in the chaos between Ironhorse and the rest of the fey. Ash dropped toward Virus like an avenging angel, his coat flapping in the wind, sword bared and gleaming as he raised it over his head.
At the last moment, one of the Thornguards surrounding Virus glanced up, and his eyes got huge. Drawing his sword, he gave a shout of warning, and amazingly, Virus whirled and looked up. Ash’s blade slashed down in a streak of blue and met the Scepter of the Seasons as Virus swept it up to block him.
There was a flash of blue and green light and a hideous screech that echoed through the room and caused every eye to turn to the pair on the overhang. Sparks flew between the ice blade and the scepter, bathing the combatants’ faces in flickering lights. Virus looked rather shocked to be facing her former soldier; Ash’s mouth was tight with concentration as he bore down on her with his sword.
Puck set me down—I didn’t even remember landing—and leaped between the Thornguards as they rushed up with drawn swords. Grinning, he threw himself at the guards, daggers flashing in the hellish light coming from Ash’s blade and the scepter. Then Virus started to laugh.
I felt a surge of cold iron glamour, and she shoved Ash away, pushing him back in a flash of green. He recovered immediately, but before he could rush her again, Virus retreated, stepping off the mezzanine to float several feet in the air. Her poisonous green eyes found me and she smiled.
“Well.” She sniffed and cast bemused glances at the chaos spread at her feet. Ironhorse, surrounded by Iron fey, still kicked and raged at them, though his struggles were growing weaker. More Thornguards came rushing up the steps, but these held crossbows with iron bolts, pointed right at us. Ash and Puck drew back so that they were standing between me and the guards, who had us surrounded in a bristly black ring.
“Meghan Chase. You are full of surprises, aren’t you?” Virus smiled at me.
“I’ve no idea how you managed to free the Winter prince from my bug, but it doesn’t matter now. The armies of the false king are ready to march on Summer and Winter. Once they have taken the Nevernever and killed off the oldblood rulers, it will be our turn. We will overrun their armies and kill the false king before he has a chance to savor his victory. Then, the Nevernever will belong to m—”
She didn’t have a chance to finish. Ash drew back and hurled a flurry of ice daggers at her face, taking her by surprise. She flinched, holding up the scepter; there was a flash of green light and a surge of power. The icicles shattered, bursting apart before they reached her. With angry shouts, the crossbow men released their quarrels even as Virus screamed at them to stop.
The deadly storm of iron bolts flew toward us. I could feel them sailing through the air, Matrix style, leaving distorted ripples in their wake. Without thinking, I turned and flung out my hand. I didn’t think how crazy it was, that at such close range the bolts would rip right through me like I was paper. That we would all most certainly die, peppered by lethal darts that could kill even if they weren’t made of iron. I wasn’t thinking of anything as I spun and gestured sharply, feeling a surge of electricity beneath my skin. A ripple went through the air. The bolts flew to either side of us, thunking into the walls and pinging off metal beams to clatter to the floor. I heard Iron fey shriek as they were hit, but not one of the half-dozen bolts touched us.
The Thornguards gaped. Ash and Puck stared at me as if I had grown another head. I shivered violently, trembling from the strange cold glamour that writhed under my skin and buzzed in my ears.
“Impossible.” Virus spun slowly to face me, her face draining of color. She shook her head, as if trying to convince herself. “You cannot be the one. A weakling human girl? You’re not even one of us. It’s a mistake, it must be!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but it didn’t seem to matter. Virus started to giggle, sticking a green-tinted nail in her mouth, her laughter growing louder and more hysterical, until she stopped and glared at me with wide, crazy eyes. “No!” she screamed, making even the Thornguards flinch. “It isn’t right! I was his second! His power should have been mine!”
Her mouth opened, gaping impossibly wide, and the Thornguards backed away. Heart pounding, I pressed close to Ash and Puck, feeling their grim determination, their resolve to go down fighting no matter what. The air started to vibrate, a terrible buzzing filling the air, and Virus threw her head back. With the droning of a million bees, a huge swarm of metal bugs spiraled up from Virus’s mouth, swirling around her in a frantic glittering cloud. Her smile was savage as she looked down at us, extending a hand from the center of the buzzing tornado. “Now, my dears,” she said, barely audible over the droning of a thousand bugs, “we will end this little game once and for all. I should have done this when I first saw you, but I had no idea you were the one I was searching for all along.”
Everything grew very still. The cold glamour still buzzed beneath my skin, and I could taste metal on the air. I looked at the swarm and saw thousands of individual bugs, but also a single creature sharing one mind, one goal, one purpose. A hive mind, I thought impassively, not knowing why I felt so calm. Control one, and you control them all.
Vaguely, I was aware that Virus was speaking, her voice seeming to come from very far away.
“Go,” she screamed, sweeping her arm toward us. “Crawl down their throats and nostrils, into their eyes and ears and every open pore. Burrow into their brains and make them tear out their own hearts!”
The Swarm flew toward us, a furious, buzzing cloud. Ash and Puck pressed close; I felt one of them shaking but couldn’t tell who. A droning filled my ears as the Swarm approached, glowing bright with iron glamour, melded into a single massive entity. One mind. One creature.
I threw up both my hands as the Swarm dove forward to attack, Stop!
The Swarm broke apart, swirling around us, filling the air with their deafening buzz. But they didn’t attack. We stood in the middle of the screaming hurricane, metal bugs zipping around us frantically but moving no closer.