“There’s no time to go around!” I yelled, hoping the unicorn could understand me. “Mab is on the far side of the river! We have to go straight through!”
A bellow sounded behind us. I glanced back to see the wyvern dive from the slope and glide toward the ground, straight for us. I saw Rowan on the wyvern’s back, sword drawn, his furious gaze fixed on me, and my stomach clenched in terror. “Go!” I shrieked, and with a desperate whinny, we plunged into the heart of the battle. The unicorn bounded through the chaos, dodging weapons, leaping over obstacles, moving with terrifying speed. My hand gripped the mane so hard that my arms shook; the other hand burned with the scepter. Around us, Summer and Winter fey tore and slashed at each other, screaming in fury, pain and pure, joyful bloodlust. I caught flashes of the battle as we sped through. A pair of trolls pounded stone clubs into a swarm of goblins, their shoulders and backs bristling with spears. A trio of redcaps dragged a wailing sylph from the air, ignoring the razor edge of her dragonfly wings, and buried her under their stabbing knives. Seelie knights in green and gold armor clashed swords with Unseelie warriors, their movements so graceful it looked like they were dancing, but their unearthly beauty was twisted with hate. The roar of the wyvern sounded directly above us, and the unicorn leaped aside so quickly I nearly lost my seat. I saw the wyvern’s hooked, grasping talons slam into a dwarf, and the bearded man screamed as he was torn away and lifted into the air, struggling weakly. The wyvern soared upward, and I watched in horror as it dropped the still struggling dwarf to the rocks below. Wheeling in a lazy circle, it came for us again. My mount started weaving, a frantic, zigzag pattern that jostled me from side to side and made me sick with fear. I pressed my knees into the unicorn’s sides so hard that I felt its ribs through my gown. The wyvern wavered in the air, confused, then dove with another chilling wail. My nimble steed dodged once more, but this time the wyvern passed so close I could’ve slapped its claws with the back of my hand.
We were in the middle of the field, still nowhere near the river, when the unicorn went down.
The fighting was thicker in the center of the battleground, where soldiers from both sides clashed together over the dead and the dying. The unicorn darted between the crowds, seeming to know exactly when a hole would open up, slipping through without slowing down. But Rowan was still on our tail. As the unicorn dodged the wyvern’s pass for the third time, a huge, rocklike monster reared up from beneath the snow, swiping at us with a massive club. It clipped the unicorn’s front legs, and the graceful animal collapsed with a shrill whinny. I went flying off its back and hit a snowbank with a landing that drove the air from my lungs. Dazed, I lay there as the world spun like a carousel, flickering in and out of view. Blurred, shadowy figures raged around me, screaming, but the sounds were muffled and distorted, coming from a great distance away.
Then the white shape of the unicorn reared up, pawing the air, slashing with its horn, before it was pulled under the black mass. I pushed myself to my knees, calling out to it, but my arms shook, and I collapsed, sobbing in frustration. Once more, the unicorn reared up, its white coat streaked with crimson, several dark things clinging to its back. I cried out, crawling forward desperately, but with a shrill cry, the unicorn disappeared into the churning mass once more. This time, it didn’t resurface.
As I gasped for breath, fighting tears, something wet and slimy dripped onto my arm. I looked up into the warty face of a goblin, its crooked teeth slick with drool as it grinned at me, flicking a pale tongue over its lips.
“Tasty girl dead yet?” it asked, poking my arm with the butt of its spear. I lurched upright. Nausea surged through me and the ground twirled. I concentrated on not passing out. The goblin scuttled back with a hiss, then edged forward again. I frantically gazed around for a weapon, and saw the scepter, lying in the snow a few feet away.
The goblin grinned, raising its spear, then vanished under several tons of wyvern as the monstrous lizard landed on it with a boom that shook the ground, sending snow flying. Roaring, it reared back to strike, and I lunged for the scepter. My hand closed over the rod, and a jolt of electricity shot up my arm. I felt the wyvern’s hot breath on my neck and rolled back, bringing up the scepter. In that split second, I saw the gaping, tooth-filled maw of the wyvern fill my whole vision, and the scepter in my hand glowing, not blue or gold or green, but a pure, blinding white. Lightning shot from the rod, slamming into the wyvern’s open mouth. The blast flung the lizard’s head back, filling the air with the stench of charred flesh. At the same time, I felt something inside me break, like a hammer striking glass, shattering into a million pieces. Sound, color and emotion flooded my mind, a bottled-up wave of glamour pouring outward, and I screamed.
A pulse ripped through the air, flying outward. It knocked the nearest fighters off their feet and continued, spreading across the field. Fighting a wave of dizziness, I staggered to my feet, swaying like a drunk sailor in a torn and filthy gown. I couldn’t see Mab or Oberon through the indistinct shadows around me, but I did see hundreds of glowing eyes, shining blades and bared teeth, ready to tear me apart. I certainly had everyone’s attention now. The scepter pulsed in my hand. Gripping the handle, I raised it over my head. A flickering light spilled over the crowd, making them mutter and draw back.
“Where is Queen Mab?” I called, my voice reedy and faint, barely rising above the howl of the wind. No one answered, so I tried again. “My name is Meghan Chase, daughter of Lord Oberon. I am here to return the Scepter of the Seasons.” I hoped someone told Mab quickly; I didn’t know how much longer I could stay conscious, much less speak in coherent sentences in front of the queen.
Slowly, the crowd parted, and the air around us dropped several degrees, making my breath steam before my face. Mab came through the crowd on a huge white warhorse, her gown trailing behind her, her hair unbound and flowing down her back. The horse’s hooves didn’t quite touch the ground, and great gouts of steam billowed from its nostrils, wreathing the Winter Queen in a ghostly halo of fog. Her lips and nails were blue, her eyes as black as a starless night as she peered down at me.
“Meghan Chase.” The queen’s voice was a hiss, her perfect features terrifyingly blank. Her gaze flicked to the rod in my hand, and she smiled, cold and dangerous.
“I see you have my scepter. So, is the Summer Court finally admitting their mistake?”
“No,” came a strong voice before I could answer. “The Summer Court had nothing to do with stealing the scepter. You are the one who jumped to conclusions, Lady Mab.”
And Oberon was there, sweeping through the crowd on a golden-bay stallion, flanked by a squad of elven knights. His faery mail glittered emerald and gold, bright links woven around protrusions of bark and bone, and an antlered helm rose above his head. I felt a surge of relief at seeing him, but it shriveled when the Erlking looked at me, his green eyes cold and remote. “I told you before, Queen Mab,” he said, speaking to Mab but still glaring at me, “I knew nothing of this, nor did I send my people to steal the scepter from you. You have started a war with us over a false pretense.”
“So you say.” Mab gave me a predatory smile, making me feel like a trapped rabbit. “But, it seems the Summer Court is still at fault, Erlking. You might have known nothing of the scepter, but your daughter admits her guilt by trying to return what is mine, hoping perhaps, that I will be merciful. Is that not correct, Meghan Chase?”
I noticed crowds of both Winter and Summer fey edging back from the rulers, and wished I could do the same. “No,” I blurted out, feeling the glare of both rulers burning holes through my skull. “I mean…no, I didn’t steal it.”
“Lies!” Mab leaped from her warhorse and stalking toward me. The mad gleam was back, and my stomach contracted in fear. “You are a filthy human, and all you speak is lies. You turned Ash against me. You made him fight his own brother. You fled Tir Na Nog and sought sanctuary with the exile Leanansidhe. Is this not true, Meghan Chase?”
“You were in the throne room when my son was murdered. Why did they let you live? How did you survive, if it was not the Summer Court behind it all?”
“I told you—”
“If you did not steal the Scepter of the Seasons, who did?”
“The Iron fey!” I shouted, as my temper finally snapped. Not the smartest move, but I was hurt, dizzy, exhausted, and could still see the body of Ironhorse, sprawled lifelessly on the cement, the unicorn torn apart before my eyes. After everything we’d done, everything we’d gone through, to have some faery bitch accuse me of lying was the last straw.
“I’m not lying, dammit!” I screamed at her. “Stop talking and just listen to me! The Iron fey stole the scepter and killed Sage! I was right there when it happened! There’s an army of them out there, and they’re getting ready to attack! That’s why they stole the scepter! They wanted you to kill each other before they came in and wiped out everything!”
Mab’s eyes went glassy and terrifying, and she raised her hand. I figured I was dead. You don’t shout at a faery queen and expect to walk away scot-free. But Oberon finally stepped forward, interrupting Mab before she could turn me into a Popsicle. “Hold, Lady Mab,” he said in a low voice. The Winter Queen turned her mad, killing glare on him, but he faced her calmly. “Just a moment, please. She is my daughter, after all.” He gave me a measuring look. “Meghan Chase, please return the scepter to Lady Mab, and let us be done with this.”
Gladly. I approached Mab and held out the scepter in both hands, anxious to be rid of the stupid thing. For all its power, it seemed such a small, trivial item, to cause so much hate and confusion and death. For a moment, the Winter Queen stared at me, her features cold and blank, letting me sweat. Finally, and with great dignity, she reached out and took the scepter, and a great sigh of relief spread across the battlefield. It was done. The Scepter of the Seasons was back where it belonged, and the war was over.
“Now, Meghan Chase,” Oberon said as the ripple died down, “why don’t you tell us everything that happened?”
So I did, summarizing as best I could. I told them about Tertius stealing the scepter and killing Sage. I told them about the Thornguards, and how they wanted to become Iron fey themselves. I described Grimalkin leading us through the Briars, and how we met Leanansidhe, who agreed to help us. And finally, I told them about Virus, her plans to invade the Nevernever, and how we were able to track her down and get the scepter back. I left out the parts with Ironhorse. Despite his help and noble sacrifice, they would only see him as the enemy, and I didn’t want to be accused of guilt by association. When I was done, an incredulous silence hung in the air, and for a moment only the wind could be heard, howling over the plains.
“Impossible.” Mab’s voice was chilly, but it had lost the crazy edge, at least. My handing over the scepter seemed to placate her for now. “How did they get into the palace, and out again, without anyone seeing them?”