“I’m so lost,” I groaned, sitting down on the curb. “Why are we going back to the park? We just came from there. There are other trees in New Orleans.”
“Explain later.” Ash appeared beside me. His voice was low and harsh. “We need to go. Now.”
“Why?” I asked, just as the streetlamps—and every artificial light on the block—sputtered and went out.
Faery lights glowed overhead as both Ash and Puck called them into existence. Footsteps echoed in the shadows, getting closer, coming from all directions. Grimalkin muttered something and disappeared. Puck and Ash stepped back to flank me, their eyes scanning the darkness.
Beyond the ring of light, dark shapes shuffled toward us. As they came into the light, the faery fire washed over the faces of humans—normal men and women—their features blank as they lurched forward. Most of them carried weapons: iron pipes and metal baseball bats and knives. Every zombie movie I’d ever seen sprang to mind, and I pressed close to Ash, feeling the muscles coil under his skin.
“Humans,” Ash muttered, his hand dropping to his sword. “What are they doing? They shouldn’t be able to see us.”
A dark chuckle rose from the ranks shambling toward us, and the mob abruptly stopped. They moved aside as a woman floated between them, hands on her slender hips. She wore a business suit of poison green, three-inch heels, and green lipstick that glowed with radioactive brightness. Her hair appeared to be made of wires, thin network cables of various color: greens, blacks, and reds.
“Here you are at last.” Her voice buzzed, like millions of bees given speech. “I’m shocked that Ironhorse had such a problem with you, but then again, he’s so old. Past his usefulness, I’d say. You will not have such an easy time with me.”
“Who are you?” growled Ash. Puck moved beside him, and together they formed a living shield in front of me. The lady giggled, like a mosquito humming in your ear, and held out a green-nailed hand.
“I am Virus, second of King Machina’s lieutenants.” She blew me a kiss that made my skin crawl. “Pleased to meet you, Meghan Chase.”
“What have you done to these people?” I demanded.
“Oh, don’t worry about them.” Virus twirled in place, smiling. “They’ve just caught a little bug. These little bugs, to be exact.” She held up her hand, and a tiny insect swarm flew out of her sleeve to hover over her palm, like sparkling silver dust. “Cute little things, aren’t they? Quite harmless, but they allow me to get inside a brain and rewrite its programming. Allow me to demonstrate.” She gestured to the nearest human, and the man dropped to all fours and started to bark. Virus tittered, clapping her hands. “See? Now he thinks he’s a dog.”
“Brilliant,” Puck said. “Can you make him crow like a rooster, too?”
Ash and I glared at him. He blinked. “What?”
I started, a memory dropping into place, and spun back on Virus. “You…you’re the one who set the chimera loose on Elysium!”
“Why, yes, that was my work.” Virus looked pleased, though her face fell a moment later. “Although, as an experiment, it didn’t quite work out as I’d hoped. The normal fey don’t react well to my bugs. That whole aversion-to-iron thing, you know. It drove the stupid beast mad, and probably would have killed it, if it hadn’t been sliced to pieces. Mortals, though!” She pirouetted in the air, flinging out her arms, as if to embrace the crowd. “They make wonderful drones. So devoted to their computers and technology, they were slaves to it long before I came along.”
“Let them go,” I told her.
Virus regarded me with glittering green eyes. “I don’t think so, dearie.” She snapped her fingers, and the mob shambled forward again, arms reaching. “Bring me the girl,” she ordered as the circle tightened around us. “Kill the rest.”
Ash drew his sword.
“No!” I cried, grabbing his arm. “Don’t hurt them. They’re just ordinary humans. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Ash shot me a wild glare over his shoulder. “Then what do you want me to do?”
“I suggest we run,” Puck offered, taking something from his pocket. He tossed it at the crowd, and it exploded into a log, pinning two startled zombie men to the ground, creating a hole in the ring surrounding us.
“Let’s go!” Puck yelled, and we didn’t need encouraging. We leaped over the thrashing bodies, dodging the pipes they swung at us, and tore down the street.
The Dryad of City Park
Pounding footsteps told us we were being followed. A twirling pipe flew over my shoulder, smashing the window of a shop. I yelped and almost fell, but Ash grabbed my hand and hauled me upright.
“This is ridiculous,” I heard him growl, pulling me along. “Running from a mob, a human mob. I could take them out with one sweep of my hand.”
“Perhaps you didn’t see the copious amounts of iron they’re carrying,” Puck said, wincing as a knife hurled past him, skidding into the street. “Of course, if you want to make a suicide stand, I certainly won’t stop you. Though, I’d be disappointed you wouldn’t be there for our last duel.”
“In your dreams, princeling.”
I couldn’t believe they were bantering while we were running for our lives. I wanted to tell them to knock it off, when a pipe hurled through the air, striking Puck in the shoulder. He gasped and staggered, barely catching himself in time, and I cried out in fear.
Buzzing laughter echoed behind us. I turned my head to see Virus floating above the crowd, her bugs swirling around her like a diamond blizzard. “You can run, little faery boys, but you can’t hide,” she called. “There are humans everywhere, and all can be my puppets. If you stop now and hand over the girl, I’ll even let you choose how you want to die.”
Ash snarled. Pushing me on, he spun and hurled a spray of ice shards at the woman overhead. She gasped, and a zombie leaped into the air to block the attack, the shards tearing through his chest. He collapsed, twitching, and Virus hissed like a furious wasp.
“Oh, nice going, prince,” Puck called as the zombies lurched forward with angry cries. “Way to piss her off.”
“You killed him!” I stared at Ash, horrified. “You just killed a person, and it wasn’t even his fault!”
“There are casualties in every war,” Ash replied coldly, pulling me around a corner. “He would have killed us if he could. One less soldier to worry about.”
“This isn’t a war!” I screamed at him. “And it’s different when the humans don’t even know what’s happening. They’re only after us because some crazy faery is screwing with their heads!”
“Either way, we’d still be dead.”
“No more killing,” I snarled, wishing we could stop so I could look at him straight. “Do you hear me, Ash? Find another way to stop them. You don’t have to kill.”
He glared at me out of the corner of his eye, then sighed with irritation. “As you wish, princess. Though you might regret it before the night is out.”
We burst into a brightly lit square with a marble fountain in the center. People wandered down the sidewalks, and I relaxed a bit. Surely, Virus wouldn’t attack us here, in front of all these eyewitnesses. Faeries could blend in or go invisible, but humans, especially mobs of humans, had no such power.
Ash slowed, catching my hand and drawing me beside him. “Walk,” he murmured, tugging my arm to slow me down. “Don’t run, it’ll attract their attention.”
The crowd chasing us broke apart at the edge of the street, wandering around as if they had always meant to do so. My heart pounded, but I forced myself to walk, holding on to Ash’s hand as if we were out for a stroll.
Virus floated into the square, her bugs swarming out in all directions, and my nervousness increased. I spotted a policeman leaning beside his squad car and broke away from Ash, sprinting up to him.
Virus’s laughter cut through the night. “I see you,” she called, just as I reached the officer.
“Excuse me, sir!” I gasped as the policeman turned to me. “Could you help me? There’s a gang chasing—”
I stumbled back in horror. The officer regarded me blankly, his jaw hanging slack, his eyes empty of reason. He lunged and grabbed my arm, and I yelped, kicking him in the shin. It didn’t faze him, and he grabbed my other wrist.
The pedestrians in the square lurched toward us with renewed vigor. I snarled a curse and lashed out at the policeman, driving my knee into his groin. He winced and struck me across the face, making my head spin. The mob closed in, clawing at my hair and clothes.
And Ash was there, smashing his hilt into the policeman’s jaw, knocking him back. Puck grabbed me and leaped over the police car, dragging me over the hood. We broke free of the mob and ran, Virus’s laughter following us into the street.
“There!” Grimalkin appeared beside us, his tail fluffed out and his eyes wild. “Dead ahead! A carriage. Use it, quickly.”
I looked across the street and saw an unattended horse and open-top buggy, waiting on the curb to pick up passengers. It wasn’t a getaway car, but it was better than nothing. We crossed the street and ran toward the carriage.
A gunshot rang out behind us.
Puck jerked weirdly and fell, collapsing to the pavement with a howl of agony. I screamed, and Ash immediately hauled him upright, forcing him to move. They staggered across the street, Ash dragging Puck with him, as another shot shattered the night. The horse whinnied and half reared at the noise, rolling its eyes. I grabbed its bridle before the beast fled in terror. Behind me, walking toward us with that zombielike shuffle, I saw the police officer, one arm extended, pointing his revolver at us.
Ash shouldered Puck into the carriage and jumped into the driver’s seat, Grimalkin bounding up beside him. I scrambled inside and crouched beside Puck, sprawled on the floor of the carriage, gasping. Horrified, I watched dark blood blossom around his ribs, seeping over the floorboards.
“Hold on!” Ash yelled, and brought the reins down on the horse’s flanks with a loud “Hiya!” The horse leaped forward with a squeal. We galloped through a red light, barely dodging a honking taxi. Cars blared, people shouted and cursed, and the sounds of pursuit faded behind us.
“Ash!” I cried a few minutes later. “Puck’s not moving!”
Preoccupied with driving the carriage, Ash barely looked back, but Grimalkin leaped to the floor and trotted up to the body. Puck’s face was the color of eggshells, his skin cool and clammy. I’d tried to stanch the bleeding using a sleeve of his hoodie, but there was so much blood. My best friend was dying, and I couldn’t do anything to help.
“He needs a doctor,” I called up to Ash. “We need to find a hospital—”
“No,” Grimalkin interrupted. “Think, human! No faery would survive a hospital. With all those sharp metal instruments, he would be dead before the night was out.”