Puck snorted. “Lea, I know you. You can’t stand to be out of the loop, remember? You must have a trod that goes to Meghan’s house from the Briars, even though you can’t use it. I know you’d want keep an eye on Oberon’s daughter. What kind of gossip would you miss out on, otherwise?”
Leanansidhe pursed her lips as if she’d swallowed something sour. “You caught me there, darling. Though you don’t hesitate to rub salt in the wound, do you? I suppose I can let you use that trod, but you owe me a favor later, darling.” Leanansidhe sniffed and puffed her cigarette. “I feel I should charge something for letting you in on my greatest secret. Especially since I have no interest in the girl’s family. Such a boring lot, except the little boy—he has potential.”
“Done,” I said. “You have your favor. At least from me. Now, will you let us use it or not?”
Leanansidhe snapped her fingers, and Skrae the piskie fluttered down from the ceiling. “Take them to the basement trod,” she ordered, “and guide them to the right door. Go.” Skrae bobbed once and zipped to my shoulder, hiding in my hair. “I will continue to have my spies monitor SciCorp,” Leanansidhe said. “See if they can discern where Virus is moving it to. You should get going, darling.”
I straightened and glanced at Puck, who nodded. “All right, let’s go. Grim, keep an eye on Ironhorse, would you? Make sure he doesn’t go charging the army by himself. We’ll be back soon.” I shook my hair, dislodging the piskie huddled against my neck. “All right, Skrae, take us out of here.”
Close to Ice
Our trip back through the Briars was less exciting than our trip in. We saw no dragons, spiders or killer-wasp fey, though truthfully I could’ve wandered straight into their hive without noticing. My mind was consumed with Ash and my family. Would he really…kill them? Cut them down in cold blood, invisible and unheard? What would I do then?
I pressed a palm to my face, trying in vain to stop the tears. I would kill him. If he hurt Ethan or Mom in any way, I would put a knife through his heart myself, even if I was sobbing my eyes out while I did it. Even if I still loved him more than life itself. Sick with worry, fighting the despair that threatened to drown me, I didn’t see Puck stop until I ran into him, and he steadied me without a word. We had reached the end of the tunnel, where a simple wooden door waited in the thorns a few feet away. Even in the tangled darkness of the Briars, I recognized it. This was the gate that had led me into Faery, all those months ago. This was where it all began, at Ethan’s closet door. Ahead of us, Skrae gave a last buzz and flew back down the tunnel, back to Leanansidhe to give his report, I assumed. There was no going back for me. I reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Puck ordered. I turned back, impatient and annoyed, when I saw the grim severity in his eyes. “Are you ready for this, Princess?” he asked softly. “Whatever lies beyond that door isn’t Ash any longer. If we’re going to save your family, we can’t hold back now. We might have to—”
“I know,” I interrupted, not wanting to hear it. My chest tightened, and my eyes started to tear, but I dashed them away. “I know. Let’s…let’s just do this, all right? I’ll figure something out when I see him.” And before Puck could say anything else, I wrenched the door open and walked through.
The cold hit me immediately, taking my breath away. It hung in the air as I shivered, gazing around in horror, my stomach twisting so painfully that I felt nauseous. Ethan’s bedroom was completely encased in ice. The walls, the dresser, the bookshelf; all covered in a layer of crystal nearly two inches thick, but so clear so I could see everything trapped within. Outside the window, a cold, clear night shone through the glass, the moonlight sparkling lifelessly off the ice.
“Oh, man,” I heard Puck whisper behind me.
“Where’s Ethan?” I gasped, rushing to his bed. The horrific vision of him trapped in ice, unable to breathe, made me virtually ill, and I nearly threw up at the thought. But Ethan’s bed was empty, the quilts flat and still beneath the frozen layer.
“Where is he?” I whispered, near panic. Then I heard a faint noise from beneath the bed, a soft, breathy whimper. Dropping to my knees, I peered into the crack, wary of monsters and bogeys and the things that lurked under the bed. A small, shivering lump stirred in the far corner, and a pale face looked up at mine.
“Ethan!” Relieved beyond words, I reached under the bed and pulled him out, hugging him close. He was so cold; he clung to me with frozen hands, his four-year-old body shaking like a leaf.
“You c-came back,” he whispered, as Puck crossed the room and shut the door without a sound. “Quick! You have to s-save Mommy and Daddy.”
My blood ran cold. “What happened?” I asked, holding him with one arm while pulling open the door we came through. Now it was just a normal closet. I yanked out a quilt that wasn’t covered in ice and wrapped Ethan in it, sitting him on the frozen bed.
“He came,” Ethan whispered, pulling the folds tighter around himself. “The dark person. S-Spider told me he was coming. He told me t-to hide.”
“Spider? Who’s Spider?”
“The m-man under the b-bed.”
“I see.” I frowned and rubbed his numb fingers between mine. Why would a bogey be helping Ethan? “What happened then?”
“I hid, and everything turned to ice.” Ethan gripped my hand, big blue eyes beseeching mine. “Meggie, Mommy and Daddy are still out there, with him! You have to save them. Make him go away!”
“We will,” I promised. My heart started an irregular thud in my chest. “We’ll make this right, Ethan, I promise.”
“He should stay here,” Puck murmured, peering through a crack in the door.
“Man, it looks like the whole house is iced over. Ash is here, all right.”
I nodded. I hated to leave Ethan, but there was no way I wanted my brother to see what came next. “You wait here,” I told him, smoothing down his curly hair. “Stay in your room until I come get you. Close the door and don’t come out, no matter what, okay?”
He sniffled and huddled deeper into the quilt. With my heart in my throat, I turned to Puck. “All right,” I whispered. “Let’s find Ash.”
We crept down the stairs, Puck in front, me clinging to the railing because the stairs were slick and treacherous. The house was eerily silent, an unfamiliar palace of sparkling crystal, the cold so sharp that it cut into my lungs and burned my fingers as they gripped the railing.
We reached the living room, cloaked in shadow except for the light that came from the open door and the flickering static of the television. Silhouetted against the screen, Mom’s and Luke’s heads were visible over the top of the couch. Leaning together, as if asleep, they were frozen solid, encased in ice like everything else. My heart stood still.
I rushed forward, but Puck grabbed my arm, holding me back. Snarling, I turned on him, trying to shake him off, until I saw his face. His eyes were hard, his jaw set as he pulled me behind him, a dagger appearing in his hand.
Trembling, I looked into the living room again just as Ash melted out of the shadows on the far wall, drawing his sword as he did. In the harsh blue light, he looked awful, his skin split open along his cheekbones and his eyes sunk into his face. There were new wounds over his arms and hands, where the skin had blackened along the openings, looking burned and dead. His silver eyes were bright with pain and madness as he stared at us, every inch a killer, but I couldn’t be afraid of him. There was only grief now, a horrible, soul-wrenching pain knowing that, no matter what happened, I had to let him die. If I wanted to save my family, Puck would have to kill Ash. Tonight. Right here in my living room. I forced down a sob and stepped forward, ignoring Puck as he grabbed for me, my eyes only for the dark prince standing across the room.
“Ash,” I whispered as his eyes flicked to my face, following my every move.
“Can you hear me at all? Please, give us something. Otherwise, Puck is going to…” I swallowed hard, as he continued to regard me blankly. “Ash, I can’t let you hurt my family. But…I don’t want to lose you, either.” The tears spilled over, and I faced him desperately.
“Please, tell me you can fight this. Please—”
I sucked in a breath, staring at him. He stood rock still, the muscles working in his jaw, as if he was struggling to speak. “I…can’t fight this,” he gritted out, closing his eyes in concentration. His arms shook, and his grip on the sword tightened. “You have to…kill me, Meghan. I…can’t stop myself…”
His eyes opened, glazed over once more. “Get away from me, now!”
Puck shoved me away as Ash leaped across the room, his sword coming down in a sapphire blur. I hit the floor, wincing as the ice scraped my palms and bruised my knees. With my back against the wall, I watched Puck and Ash battle in the middle of the living room, feeling dead inside and out. I couldn’t save him. Ash was lost to me now, and worse, one of them was going to die. If Puck won, Ash would be killed. But if Ash emerged victorious, I would lose everything, including my own life. I guess I should’ve been rooting for Puck, but the cold despair in my heart kept me from feeling anything. As Ash whirled away from a vicious upward slash, something glittered beneath his hair at the base of his skull. Scrambling to my feet, I narrowed my eyes and my senses, staring at it intently. A tiny spark of cold, iron glamour glimmered at the top of Ash’s spine and I gasped. That was it! The bug, the thing that was controlling him and, ultimately, killing him.
As if it could sense my thoughts, Ash whirled, his eyes narrowing in my direction. As Puck’s knife came down at his back, he spun, knocking it aside, and stabbed forward with his weapon. Puck twisted desperately, but it wasn’t enough, and the icy blade plunged deep into his shoulder. I cried out, and Puck stumbled back, dark blood blossoming over his shirt, his face tight with pain.
Ash lunged at me, and I tensed, my heart hammering in my chest. All those times watching him fight gave me an inkling of what was coming. As the sword came slashing down at my head, I dove forward, hearing the savage chink of the blade against the ice. Rolling away, I glanced back, saw the sword coming and threw myself aside, barely avoiding the second swing that bit into the floor, pelting me with ice shards. I hit the wall and turned back to see Ash standing over me, weapon raised high. There was nowhere to go. I looked into his face, saw his jaw tighten and his arm tremble as he met my gaze. For a split second, the sword wavered, and he closed his eyes…
Just as Puck rose up from nowhere with a snarl and slammed the dagger into his chest.
Time stood still. A scream lodged in my throat as Puck and Ash stared at each other, Puck’s shoulders heaving with breaths or sobs, I couldn’t tell. For a moment, they stood there, locked in a morbid embrace, until Puck let out a strangled noise and wrenched himself away, yanking out the dagger in a spray of crimson. The sword fell from Ash’s hand, hitting the ground with a ringing clang that echoed through the house.