I felt the Swarm straining against my will, fighting to get past it. I saw Virus’s face, first slack with disbelief, then white with fury. She made a violent gesture, and the Swarm buzzed angrily in response. I strengthened my hold, pouring magic into the invisible barrier, drawing glamour from the factory. My head pounded, and sweat ran into my eyes, but I couldn’t break my concentration or we’d be torn apart.
Virus smiled nastily. “I have underestimated you, Meghan Chase,” she said, rising higher into the air. “I did not think you would force me to use the scepter, but there you go. Do you know what this does, my dear?” she asked, holding it out before her. Ash looked up sharply. “It took me forever to puzzle it out, but I finally got it.” She grinned, triumphant. “It enhances the power of the one who holds it. Isn’t that interesting? So, for instance, I could make my darling bugs do this…”
The scepter glowed a sickly green, and in that light, the Swarm started to change. They swelled like ticks full of blood, becoming sharp and spiky, with long stingers and huge curved jaws. Now they were the size of my fist, a horrible cross between a wasp and a scorpion, and their wings scraped against each other like a million knives. And their minds changed, to something more savage, more visceral and predatory. I nearly lost my hold on them, and the whirlwind tightened, pressing closer to us, before I regained control and pushed them back.
Buzzing furiously, they turned on whatever living thing they could reach, including the guards surrounding us. The Thornguards screamed, reeling back and clawing at themselves as the metal bugs swarmed over them, biting and stinging, burrowing into their armor.
Virus giggled madly overhead. “Kill them!” she cried, as several bugs chewed their way into their victims, who fell thrashing and screaming to the ground. My stomach heaved, but I couldn’t look away for fear of losing control of the Swarm. I didn’t know what Virus thought she was doing until a moment later, when the Thornguards lurched to their feet again, crazed gleams in their eyes.
Raising their swords, they staggered toward us, blood pouring from their wounds and the holes in their armor, their eyes empty of reason. Ash and Puck met them at the edge of the whirlwind, and the clash of weapons joined the metallic drone of the Swarm. We were lost. I couldn’t keep this up forever. My head throbbed so much that I felt nauseous, and my arms were shaking violently. I could feel my strength draining with the amount of glamour I was using to keep the Swarm at bay.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Thornguard, covered in bugs, stagger to the edge of the platform and pick up a crossbow. Raising it up, he loaded an iron bolt and swung it around at me. I couldn’t move. If I dodged, the Swarm would break free and kill us. Puck and Ash were busy fighting off the other guards and couldn’t help. I couldn’t even shout a warning. In slow motion, I watched him raise the crossbow, unhindered, and take aim. Later, I remembered the clanging footsteps charging up the steps only because they seemed so out of place. I saw Puck whirl around, saw his dagger whip out and soar end over end toward the Thornguard, just as he pulled the trigger. The dagger thunked into the guard’s chest, hurling him off the mezzanine, but it was too late. The bolt was coming toward me, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Something huge and black lunged across my vision a split second before the bolt hit home. Ironhorse, covered in bugs and shedding chunks of iron everywhere, stumbled, fighting desperately to stay on his feet. He staggered toward the edge of the overhang, shaking his head as bugs swarmed him viciously. A hoof slipped off the edge, and he lurched sideways.
“No!” I screamed.
With a last defiant bellow and blast of flame, Ironhorse toppled from the edge, vanishing from sight. I heard his body strike the cement with a resounding boom that echoed through the building, and my vision went white with rage. I arched my back, clenching my fists, and glamour rushed through me, exploding out in a wave. “GET BACK!” I roared at the Swarm, at Virus, at every Iron faery in the room. “Damn you all! Back off, NOW!”
The Swarm flew in every direction, scattering to all four corners of the room. The Thornguards flinched and stumbled backward; some even fell off the edge of the railing. Even Virus jerked in midair, reeling back like she had been sucker punched, her hands falling limply at her sides.
I slumped to the floor, all the strength going out of me. As the Swarm began coalescing again, buzzing angrily as they swarmed back together, and the Thornguards regained their senses, Virus put a hand to her temple and looked down at me, a smug grin stretching her blue lips.
“Well, Meghan Chase. Congratulations, you’ve managed to give me a pounding headache. But it is not enough to—aaaahhhhhh!”
She jerked, throwing up her hands as Ash launched himself off the edge of the railing and leaped at her, sword raised high. Still screaming, she tried to bring up the scepter, too late. The ice blade sliced down, through her collarbone and out the other side, cutting her clean in two.
If I wasn’t so dizzy, I might’ve puked. Virus’s halves fell away, wires and oily goo spilling from her severed body as both she and Ash dropped out of sight. The Thornguards spasmed, then collapsed like puppets with cut strings. As I sat there, dazed by what had just happened, Puck hauled me upright and dragged me under a beam. Then it started raining insects.
The clatter of metal bugs brought me back to my senses. “Ash,” I muttered, struggling to free myself. Puck wrapped his arms around me and held me to his chest. “I have to go to him…see if he’s all right.”
“He’s fine, Princess,” Puck snapped, tightening his grip. “Relax. He knows enough to get out of the rain.”
I relented. Closing my eyes, I leaned into him, resting my head on his chest as the bugs clattered around us like glittering hail. He hugged me close, muttering something about Egyptian plagues, but I wasn’t listening. My head hurt, and I was still trying to process everything that had just happened. I was so tired, but at least it was over. And we had survived. Or, most of us had.
“Ironhorse,” I whispered as the rain of bugs finally came to an end. I felt Puck tense. Freeing myself from his arms, I stumbled across the mezzanine, taking care to avoid the dead bugs and Thornguards, and groped my way down the stairs. I didn’t know what I’d find, but I was hopeful. Ironhorse couldn’t be dead. He was the strongest of us all. He might be terribly hurt, and we’d have to find someone to put him back together, but Ironhorse was near invincible. He had to have survived. He had to.
I’d almost convinced myself not to worry when Ash stepped out from beneath the overhang and stood at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at me. His sword was sheathed, and in one hand, the Scepter of the Seasons pulsed with a clean blue light. For a long moment, we stared at each other, unwilling to break the silence, to voice what we both were thinking. I wondered if Ash would take the scepter and leave. Our contract was done. He had what he came for; there was no reason for him to stick around any longer.
“So.” I broke the silence first, trying to quell the tremor in my voice, the stupid tears that pressed behind my eyes once more. “Are you leaving now?”
“Soon.” His voice was calm but tired. “I’ll be returning to Winter, but I thought I would pay my respects to the fallen before I go.”
My stomach dropped. I looked behind him and saw, for the first time, the pile of mangled iron in the shadows of the mezzanine. With a gasp, I lurched down the rest of the stairs, pushed past Ash, and half ran, half stumbled to where Ironhorse lay surrounded by dead bugs and the smoking remains of Virus.
“Ironhorse?” For a split second, I thought I saw Grimalkin there, sitting at his head. But I blinked back tears and the image was gone. Ironhorse lay on his side, heaving with great raspy breaths, the fires in his belly burning low. One of his legs was shattered, and huge chunks of his body had been ripped away. Pistons and gears were scattered around him like broken clockwork.
I knelt beside his head, putting a shaking hand on his neck. It was cold, and his once burning red eyes were dim, flickering erratically. At my touch, he stirred, but didn’t raise his head or look at me. I had a horrid suspicion he couldn’t see any of us.
Hearing his voice, so small and breathy, almost made me burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, feeling Puck and Ash press behind me, gazing over my shoulder.
“No.” The red in his eyes dimmed to tiny pinpricks, and his voice dropped to a whisper. I had to strain to hear him. “It was…an honor…” He sighed one last time, as the tiny spots of light flickered once, twice. “…my queen.” And he was gone. I closed my eyes and let the tears come. For Ironhorse, who had never wavered, never once compromised his beliefs or convictions. Who had been an enemy, but chose to become an ally, a guardian and, ultimately, a friend. I knelt on the cold tile and sobbed, unembarrassed, as Puck and Ash looked on gravely, until the faint rays of dawn began seeping through the broken skylights.
“Meghan.” Ash’s quiet voice broke through my grieving. “We should go.”
His tone was gentle but unrelenting. “The Iron King’s army is ready to march. We have to return the scepter. There’s not much time left.”
I sat up and wiped my eyes, cursing the damned faeries and their eternal war. It seemed there was never enough time. Time to dance, or talk, or laugh, or even mourn the passing of a friend. Slipping off my corsage, I laid it on Ironhorse’s cold metal shoulder, wanting him to have something natural and beautiful in this lifeless place. Goodbye, Ironhorse. Ash held out a hand, and I let him pull me to my feet.
“Where to now?” I sniffled.
“The Reaping Fields,” answered a familiar voice, and Grimalkin appeared, perched several feet away on a cardboard box. He gingerly batted a metal bug off the surface, where it pinged to the floor, before continuing. “All the major battles between the courts have been fought on those plains. If I were looking for the armies of Summer and Winter, that is where I would go.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I did not say I was sure, human.” Grimalkin twitched his whiskers at me. “I only said that is where I would look. Also, I am not coming with you.”
Somehow, this didn’t surprise me. “Why not? Where are you going this time?”
“Back to Leanansidhe’s.” Grimalkin yawned and stretched, arching his tail over his back. “Now that we are done here, I will inform her that Virus is dead, and that the scepter is on its way back to the Winter Court. I am sure she will want to hear about your success.” The cat turned, waving his tail in farewell. “Until next time, human.”
He paused, looking back with unblinking golden eyes.
“What did Ironhorse promise you, that made you come along?”
He flicked his tail. “It is not for you to know, human,” he replied, his voice low and solemn. “Perhaps you will find out, someday. Oh, and if you do make it to Reaping Field, look for a friend of mine. He still owes me a favor. I believe you have met him before.”