“YOU DARE ACCUSE ME?” Ironhorse stalked forward, smoke drifting from his mouth and nostrils. We hurried after him. “YOU ARE THE BETRAYER, WHO

FOLLOWS THE COMMANDS OF THE FALSE KING. YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS

FALLEN.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Virus sighed. “As usual, you have no idea what is really going on. You think I want to follow the wheezings of an obsolete monarch? I want that even less than you. When he put me in charge of stealing the scepter, I knew that was the last command I would ever follow. Poor Tertius, believing I was still loyal to his false king. The gullible fool handed me the scepter without a second thought.” She smiled at us, fierce and terrible. “Now, I have the Scepter of the Seasons. I have the power. And if the false king wants it, he’ll have to take it from me by force.”

“I see,” I said, coming to a stop a few feet from her. Around us, the men in business suits continued to stare. “You want to become the next ruler. You had no intention of giving it to the Iron King.”

“Can you blame me?” Virus swung her feet off the table to smile at me.

“How often have you disobeyed your king because his commands were rubbish?

Goodfellow—” she pointed the scepter at Puck “—how often has the thought of rebelling crossed your mind? Don’t tell me you’ve been a faithful little monkey, catering to Oberon’s every desire, in all the years you’ve known him.”

“That’s different,” I said.

“Really?” Virus sneered at me. “I can tell you, it wasn’t difficult to convince Rowan. That boy’s hatred and jealousy are inspiring. All he needed was a little push, a tiny promise of power, and he betrayed everything he knew. He was the one who told me you were coming for the scepter, you know.” She snorted. “Of course, the claims of becoming immune to iron are completely false. As if thousands of years of history can be rewritten or erased. Iron and technology have been and will always be lethal to the traditional fey. That’s why we’re so inherently superior to you oldbloods. That’s why you’re going to fall so easily after the war.”

Ironhorse growled, the furious rumble of an oncoming train. “I WILL TAKE

THAT SCEPTER AND PLACE THE TRUE MONARCH OF THE IRON FEY ON THE

THRONE,” he vowed, taking a threatening step forward. “YOU WILL GIVE IT TO ME

NOW, TRAITOR. YOUR HUMAN PUPPETS WILL NOT BE ENOUGH TO PROTECT

YOU.”

“Ah ah ah.” Virus waggled a finger at him. “Not so fast. I didn’t want my drones up here because they are delicate and rather squishy, but I’m not quite so stupid as to be unguarded.” She smiled and gazed around the table. “All right, gentlemen. Meeting adjourned.”

At that, all the humans sitting at the tables stood, shedding glamour like discarded jackets, filling the air with fraying strands of illusion. Human facades dropped away, to reveal a dozen faeries in spiky black armor, their faces sickly and pale beneath their helms. As one, the Thornguards drew their serrated black swords and pointed them at us, trapping us in a ring of faery steel.

My stomach twisted violently, wanting to crawl up my throat and make a break for the door. I heard Puck’s exhalation of breath and Ironhorse’s dismayed snort as he pressed closer to me. Virus snickered, leaning back in her chair.

“I’m afraid you’ve walked nose first into a trap, m’dears,” she gloated as we tensed, ready to run or fight. “Oh, but you don’t want to rush off now. I have one last little surprise for you.” She giggled and snapped her fingers.

The door behind her creaked, and a dark figure stepped into the room, coming to stand behind the chair. This time, my heart dropped to my toes and stayed there.

“I’m sure you four know each other,” Virus said, as my world shrank down to a narrow tunnel, blocking everything else out. “My greatest creation so far, I think. It took six Thornguards and nearly two dozen drones to bring him down, but it was so worth it. Ironic, isn’t it? He nearly got away with the scepter the first time, and now he’ll do anything to keep it here.”

No, my mind whispered. This isn’t happening. No no no no no.

“Ash,” Virus purred as the figure came into the light, “say hello to our guests.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Traitor

I stared at Ash in a daze, torn between relief that he was alive and an acute, sickening despair. This couldn’t be real, what was happening. I had stepped into a nightmare world, where everything I loved was twisted into something monstrous and horrible. My legs felt weak, and I had to lean against Puck or I would’ve fallen.

Ironhorse snorted. “AN ILLUSION,” he mocked, staring at Ash in contempt.

“A SIMPLE GLAMOUR, NOTHING MORE. I HAVE SEEN WHAT HAPPENS TO THE

OLDBLOODS YOU IMPLANT WITH YOUR FOUL BUGS. THEY GO MAD, AND THEN

THEY DIE. THAT IS NOT THE WINTER PRINCE, ANY MORE THAN THESE GUARDS.”

“You think?” Virus’s grin was frighteningly smug. “Well, if you’re so sure, old man, you’re welcome to try to stop him. It should be easy to defeat one simple guard, although I think you’ll find the task harder than you ever expected.” She turned a purely sadistic smile on me. “The princess knows, don’t you, my dear?”

Ironhorse turned, a question in his eyes, but I couldn’t take my gaze off Virus’s bodyguard. “It’s not an illusion,” I whispered. “It really is him.” The way my heart fluttered around my chest proved this was real. I stepped forward, ignoring the bristling Thornguard weapons, and the prince’s gaze sharpened, cutting me like a knife. “Ash,” I whispered, “it’s me. Are you hurt? Say something.”

Ash regarded me blankly, no glint of recognition in his silver eyes: no anger, sorrow, nothing. “All of you,” he said in a quiet voice, “will die.”

Shock and horror lanced through me, holding me immobile. Virus giggled her hateful, buzzing laugh. “It’s no use,” she taunted. “He hears you, he even recognizes you, but he remembers nothing of his old life. He’s been completely reprogrammed, thanks to my bug. And now, he listens only to me.”

I looked closer, and my heart twisted even more. In the shadows of the room, the prince’s face was ashen, the skin pulled so tight across his bones it had split in places, showing open wounds beneath. His cheeks were hollow, and his eyes, though blank and empty, were bright with unspoken pain. I recognized that look; it was the same look Edgebriar had turned on us in the cave, teetering on the edge of madness. “It’s killing him,” I whispered.

“Well, only a little.”

“Stop it,” I hissed, and Virus arched a sardonic eyebrow. My heart pounded, but I set my jaw and plunged on. “Please,” I begged, stepping forward. “Let him go. Let me take his place. I’ll sign a contract, make a bargain, anything, if that’s what you want. But take the bug out of his head and let him go.”

“Meghan!” Puck snapped, and Ironhorse stared at me in horror. I didn’t care. I couldn’t let Ash fade away into nothing, as if he had never existed at all. I imagined myself in a field of white flowers, watching a ghostly Ash and Ariella dance together in the moonlight, together at last. Except it would be a lie. Ash wouldn’t be with his true love, even in death. He wouldn’t be anything.

Virus chuckled. “Such devotion,” she murmured, rising from the chair. “I’m terribly moved. Come here, Ash.” Ash immediately stepped up beside her, and Virus laid a hand on his chest. “You should congratulate me,” Virus continued, regarding the prince like a student with a winning science project. “I’ve finally discovered a way to implant my bugs in the fey system without killing them outright, or driving them mad within the first few hours. Instead of rewriting his brain—” she stroked Ash’s hair, and I clenched my shaking fists, fighting the urge to leap across the table and rip out her eyes “—I had it take over his cervical nervous system, here.” Her fingers dropped to the base of his skull, caressing it. “You’re welcome to try to carve it out, I suppose, but I’m afraid that will be quite fatal for him. Only I can order my bugs to willingly release their hosts. As for your offer…” She threw me an indulgent smile. “You have only one thing I want, and I will take that from you momentarily. No, I find that I prefer my bodyguard as he is, for however long he has left.”

My heart pounded. He was so close. I could reach over the table, grab his hand and pull him to safety. “Ash!” I cried, holding out my hand. “Jump, now! Come on, you can fight it. Please…” My voice dropped to a whisper. “Don’t do this. Don’t make us fight you…”

Ash gazed straight ahead, not moving a muscle, and a sob tore free from my throat. I couldn’t reach him. Ash was lost to us. The cold stranger across the table had taken his place.

“Well.” Virus took a step back. “This has grown tiresome. I think it’s time I took what I want from you, my dear. Ash.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Kill the princess. Kill them all.”

With a flash of blue light, Ash drew his sword and slashed it across the table. It happened so quickly, I didn’t even have time to scream before the icy blade streaked down at my face.

Puck lunged in front of me and caught the blade with his own, deflecting it with a screech and a flurry of sparks. I stumbled back and Puck grabbed my wrist, dragging me away even as I protested. “Retreat!” he yelled as the Thornguards leaped across the tables with a roar. I looked back and saw Ash jump gracefully onto the table, his terrible blank gaze fastened on me. “Ironhorse, fall back, there are too many of them!”

With a bellow and a blast of flame, Ironhorse reared up into his true form, breathing fire and lashing out with his hooves. The guards fell back in shock and Ironhorse charged, knocking several aside and clearing a path to the door. As the huge Iron fey thundered past, Puck shoved me toward the exit. “Go!” he shouted, and whirled to block Ash’s sword, slicing down at his back.

“Ash, stop this!” I cried, but the Winter prince paid me no attention. As the Thornguards closed on us again, Puck snarled a curse and threw a fuzzy black ball into their midst.

It burst into a maddened grizzly, which reared up with a booming roar, startling everything in the room. As the Thornguards and Ash turned toward this new threat, Puck grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the room.

“Been saving that, just in case,” he panted, as Ironhorse snorted with appreciation. “Now let’s get out of here.”

We ran for the elevator. The hallway seemed longer now, the steel doors deliberately keeping their distance. I looked back once and saw Ash stalking toward us, his sword radiating blue light through the corridor. The icy calm on his face sent a bolt of raw fear through me, and I wrenched my eyes from him.

Ahead of us, the elevator dinged. A second later, the doors slid open, and a squadron of Thornguards stepped into the hall.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” Puck exclaimed as we skidded to a halt. As one, the knights drew their swords and marched forward in unison, filling the corridor with the ring of their boots.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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