We found a pay phone, and I called for a taxi. Ten minutes later, a bright yellow cab pulled up, driven by a bearded man chewing a thick cigar. He kept glancing at me in the rearview window and smiling, oblivious to the two faeries pressed on either side of me, one glaring, one hanging his head out the window. I sat squashed between Puck and Ironhorse, with Grim on my lap and both windows rolled down, as we tore through the city streets. The smoke from the cabby’s cigar stung my nose and made my eyes water, and Puck looked positively green.
At last, we pulled up in front of a gleaming tower, the sunlight reflecting off the mirrored walls as they rose into the sky. I paid the cab fare, and we piled out of the car. As soon as we were free of the cab, Puck started coughing. He looked pale and sweaty, and my heart lurched, remembering Ash in the wasteland of the Iron fey. Ironhorse watched him curiously, as though fascinated, and Grimalkin sat down to wash his tail.
“Ugh, that was unpleasant,” Puck muttered when the harsh explosions finally stopped. He spit on the sidewalk and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t know what was worse, the cab or the stench coming from the guy’s cigar.”
“Will you be all right?” I gave him a worried look, but he just grinned.
“Never better, Princess. So, here we are.” He craned his neck, gazing up at the looming expanse of SciCorp towers. His eyes gleamed with familiar mischief. “Let’s get this party started.”
MY HEART BEHAVED ITSELF until we passed through the large glass doors. Then it started beating my ribs so forcefully I thought they would break.
“Oh, wow,” I whispered, stopping to gape at the enormous lobby. A great vaulted ceiling soared above us, maybe eight or ten stories, with strange metallic designs dangling from wires, glittering in the sun. People in expensive suits rushed by us, designer shoes clicking over the sterile gray floor. I saw cameras in every corner, armed guards hovering by a turnstile security gate, and I locked my knees together to keep them from shaking.
“Steady, Princess.” As I stood there, gawking like an idiot, Puck’s firm hands came to rest on my shoulders. “You can do this. Keep your head up, your back straight, and it wouldn’t hurt to sneer at anyone who makes eye contact.” He squeezed my shoulders and bent close, his breath warm on my ear. “We’re right behind you.”
I gave my head a jerky bob. Puck squeezed my shoulders one last time and released me. Raising my chin, I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and marched toward the security desk.
A guard in a slate-gray uniform eyed me with disinterest as I approached, looking the way I felt in algebra class, eyes glazed over and bored. The man in front of me muttered a quick, “Mornin’, Ed,” before passing his ID card under a scanner. The red light blipped to green, and the man swept through the turnstile.
My turn. Adopting what I hoped was an imperious expression, I sauntered up to the gate. “Good morning, Edward,” I greeted, slipping Rosalyn Smith’s badge under the flickering red scanner light. The guard bobbed his head with a polite smile, not even looking at me. Ha, I thought, triumphant. That was easy. We’re home free.
Then the scanner let out a shrill warning beep, and my heart stood still. Ed stood up, frowning. “Sorry, miss,” he said, as ice water began creeping up my spine. “But I’ll have to see your badge.”
Puck, Grim and Ironhorse, already on the other side of the gate, looked back fearfully. I swallowed my terror, wondering if we should abandon the plan now and get the hell out. The guard held out his hand, waiting, and I forced myself to be calm.
“Of course.” Thankfully, my voice didn’t crack as I looped the badge from my neck and held it out. The guard took it and held it up to his face, squinting his eyes. I felt a dozen gazes on the back of my neck, and crossed my arms, trying to appear bored and irritated.
“Sorry, Ms. Smith.” Ed finally looked up at me. “But did you know your card expired yesterday? You’ll have to get a new one before tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Relief bloomed through my stomach. Maybe I could pull this off after all. “Of course,” I muttered, trying to sound embarrassed. “I’ve been meaning to renew it, but you know how busy it’s been lately. I just haven’t had the time. I’ll take care of it before I leave today. Thank you.”
“No problem, Ms. Smith.” Ed handed me the badge and tipped his hat. “You have a good morning.” He pressed a button and waved me through.
I hurried around a corner and collapsed against the wall before I started hyperventilating.
“None of that, Princess,” Puck said, pulling me to my feet just as a group of businessmen turned the corner, talking about reports and staff meetings and firing a junior executive. I avoided eye contact as they swept by, but they paid me no attention.
“By the way, you did great back there,” Puck went on as we made our way down the brightly lit corridor. “I thought you would lose it, but you kept it together. Nice job, Princess.”
“First hurdle cleared,” Puck continued cheerfully. “Now, all we have to do is find floor twenty-nine point five, grab the scepter, and get out again. We’re halfway home.”
Easy for him to say. My heart had gone into overdrive, and a cold sweat was still dripping down the backs of my knees. I was just about to say so, when I noticed we had another problem. “Um, where’s Grimalkin?”
We glanced around hastily, but the cat had disappeared. Maybe his faith in the plan had been shaken by the little scene at the gate, or maybe he’d just decided “the hell with this,” and had taken off. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“WHY WOULD HE ABANDON US?” Ironhorse questioned, making me wince as his voice echoed down the hall. Thank goodness humans couldn’t hear faeries, either.
“I THOUGHT THE CAITH SITH HAD HONORABLE INTENTIONS. I WOULD NOT
HAVE PEGGED HIM A COWARD.”
Puck snorted. “You don’t know Grimalkin very well, then,” he commented, but I wasn’t sure I agreed. Grimalkin had always come through for us, even when he disappeared with no explanation. Though Ironhorse looked stunned, I wasn’t worried; Grimalkin would most assuredly pop up again when least expected.
“Never mind.” I turned and continued walking. Ironhorse still looked confused, almost hurt that an ally could betray him like this. I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “It’s okay, Ironhorse. Grim can take care of himself, and he’ll show up if we need him. We should keep looking for the scepter.”
“IF YOU SAY SO, PRINCESS.”
At the end of the corridor, we came to a pair of elevators.
“Floor twenty-nine point five,” I mused, pressing the up button. A few seconds passed before the doors opened with a ding and two women exited, passing us without a second glance. Peeking inside, I scanned the wall but, as I expected, there was no button 29.5.
I stepped over the threshold into the box, Ironhorse following at my heels. Cheerful orchestra music played at a muted volume over the speakers, and the floor was carpeted in red. Puck rushed inside and stood in the middle of the floor, away from the walls, arms crossed tightly to his chest. Ironhorse turned and blinked at him.
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT, GOODFELLOW?” he asked, his voice nearly bringing tears to my eyes as it echoed within the box. Puck gave him a fearsome smile.
“Me? I’m fine. Big metal box in a big metal tube? Not a problem. Hurry and get us to the right floor, Princess.”
I nodded and unfolded a piece of paper from my suit pocket, holding it up to the light. “Well, here goes nothing,” I murmured, and started punching in the code on the elevator buttons. 1-1-1-3-1-2-2-1-1-3. The numbers lit up as they were punched, singing out a little tune like the buttons on a cell phone.
I hit the last 3 and stepped back, waiting and holding my breath. For a moment, nothing happened. Ironhorse’s raspy breathing echoed off the metal walls, filling the box with the smell of smoke. Puck coughed and muttered something under his breath. I started to punch the code in again, thinking I’d pressed a wrong button, when the doors swooshed shut. The lights dimmed, the music ceased, and a large white button shimmered into existence, marked with a bold 29.5.
I shared a glance with my companions, who nodded.
“Floor twenty-nine point five,” I whispered, and hit the button with my thumb. “Going up.”
THE ELEVATOR STOPPED, and the doors opened with a cheerful ding. We peered out at a long, brightly lit hallway with numerous doors lining its walls and gray tiles leading to single door at the very end. I knew we were in the right place. I could feel it in the air, a faint buzz, a sharp tingle just below my skin. It made my neck hairs stand on end, and was oddly familiar. Glancing at Puck and Ironhorse, I knew they could feel it, too.
We inched down the corridor, Puck in front and Ironhorse bringing up the rear. Around us, our footsteps echoed in the silence. We passed doors without hesitation, knowing they were the wrong ones. I could feel the buzzing getting louder the closer we got to the end of the hall.
Then, we were at the last door, and Puck leaned against it, putting his ear to the wood. I don’t hear anything, he mouthed at us, and pointed to the handle. Shall we?
Ironhorse nodded, clenching his massive fists. Puck reached down and freed his daggers, gesturing to me with a point. Biting my lip, I reached out and carefully turned the handle.
The door swung forward with a creak, and a waft of frigid air hit me in the face. I shivered, resisting the impulse to rub my arms as my breath clouded the air before me. Someone had cranked the AC down to like zero degrees; the room was a freezer box as we stepped inside.
A dozen or so humans in expensive business suits sat around a long, U-shaped table in the center of the floor. From the looks of it, we had interrupted a business meeting, for they all turned and stared at me with various degrees of annoyance and confusion. At the end of the table, a swivel chair sat with its back to us, hiding the speaker or CEO or whoever was in charge. I suddenly remembered all the times I’d snuck into class late and had to scurry down the aisles to my desk while everyone watched. My face burned, and for a moment, you could hear a pin drop.
“Um, sorry,” I muttered, backing away. The business suits continued to stare at me. “Sorry. Wrong room. We’ll just…go.”
“Oh, why don’t you stick around, my dear.” The buzzing, high-pitched voice made my skin crawl. At the front of the table, the figure swiveled the chair around to face us, smiling. She wore a neon-green business suit, radioactive-blue lipstick, and bright yellow glasses above a thin, sneering face. Her hair, a myriad of computer cables, was bound atop her head in a colorful mockery of a bun. She held the scepter in green-nailed hands, like a queen observing her subjects, and my stomach gave a jolt of recognition.
“VIRUS!” Ironhorse boomed.
“No need to shout, old man. I’m right here.” Virus put her heels on the table and regarded us smugly. “I’ve been waiting for you, girl. Looking for this, are you?” She lifted her arm, and I gasped. The Scepter of the Seasons pulsed a strange, sickly green light through her fingers. Virus bared her teeth in a smile. “I was expecting the girl and her clown to come sniffing after it, but I never expected the honorable Ironhorse to turn on us. Tsk-tsk.” She shook her head. “Loyalty is so overrated these days. How the mighty have fallen.”