Ash staggered back, managing to stay on his feet for a moment, arms curled around his stomach. He swayed, putting his back to the wall, as dark blood began to drip to the ice, pooling beneath him. As I finally found my voice and screamed his name, Ash raised his head and gave me a weary smile. Then those silver eyes dimmed, like the sun vanishing behind a cloud, and he crumpled to the ground.
I rushed forward, shoving Puck out of the way. Puck stumbled aside, moving like a sleepwalker. The bloody dagger dropped limply from his hand. Ignoring him, I lunged toward Ash.
His voice brought me up short, sharp and desperate. Ash struggled to his knees, arms around his stomach, shaking with agonized gasps. Blood pooled around him as he raised his head, eyes bright with anguish. “Stay back, Meghan,” he gritted out, a line of red trickling from his mouth. “I could…still kill you. Let me be.” He grimaced, closing his eyes, one hand clutching at his skull. “I can still…feel it,” he rasped, shuddering. “It’s in…shock now, but…it’s getting strong again.” He gasped, clenching his teeth in pain. “Dammit, Goodfellow. You could’ve…made it clean. Hurry and get it over with.”
“No!” I cried, flinging myself down beside him. He flinched away from me, and I caught his shoulder.
It was like touching an electric fence, without the shock. I felt a rush of sharp, metallic glamour coming from Ash, buzzing in my ears and vibrating my senses. I felt something inside me respond, like a current beneath my skin, rushing up to my fingertips, and suddenly everything was much clearer. If glamour was raw emotion and passion, this was the absence of it: logical, calculating, impassive. I felt all my fear, panic and desperation drain away, and I looked at Ash with a new curiosity. This was a problem, but how was I going to fix it? How would I solve this equation?
“Meghan, run.” Ash’s voice was strangled, and that was all the warning I had before his eyes went glassy and his hands fastened around my throat, cutting off my air. I gasped and clawed at his fingers, staring into his blank eyes as a sharp, droning voice echoed through my head.
I gasped airlessly, fighting to stay calm, to stay connected to that cold, impassive glamour buzzing under my skin. As I stared into his eyes, I could see the bug, its hateful glare peering back at me. I could see its round, ticklike body, clamped to the top of Ash’s spine, the metal parasite that was killing him. I could hear it, and I knew it could hear me, too.
“Meghan!” Puck snatched the ice sword from where it lay, forgotten, and raised it over his head.
“Puck, don’t.” My voice came out raspy, but calm. I fought for air and felt Ash’s grip loosen the tiniest bit. He closed his eyes, breaking my connection with the bug, but I could still feel the iron glamour, buzzing all around me. He was fighting its commands, his face tight with concentration, sweat running down his skin.
“Do it,” he rasped, and I realized he spoke to Puck, not me.
“No!” I met Puck’s conflicted gaze, saw the sword waver as he swept it toward Ash. “Puck, don’t! Trust me!”
My vision was getting fuzzy. I didn’t have much time. Praying Puck would hesitate a little longer, I turned back to Ash, laying my palm against his cheek. “Ash,” I said, hoping my mangled voice would get through to him, “look at me, please.”
He didn’t respond at first, his fingers shaking as he fought the compulsion to crush my throat. When he did look up, the raw anguish, horror and torment on his face was agonizing. But, beyond his pain-filled eyes, I could see the parasite as it tightened its hold on him. My will rose up to meet it, iron glamour swirling around us. I shaped that glamour into a command, and sent it lancing into the metal bug.
Let go, I told it, putting as much force into the words as I could. It buzzed furiously and clamped down hard, and Ash cried out in agony. His fingers on my throat tightened, crushing my windpipe and turning my world red with pain. I sagged, fighting to stay conscious, seeing darkness crawling along the edge of my vision. No! I told it. I will not lose to you. I will not give him up! Let go!
The bug hissed again…and loosened its hold, still fighting me all the way. I put my shaking hand against Ash’s chest, over his heart, feeling it crash against his ribs. Ash’s grip tightened once more, and the world started to go black. Get out, I snarled with the last of my strength. Get out of him, now!
A crackle and a flash of light, and Ash convulsed, shoving me away. I fell against the cold floor, striking my head against the ice, blackness momentarily blinding me. Fighting for consciousness, I saw a glint of light, of something tiny and metallic, fly up toward the ceiling, and Ash staring at his hands in horror. The metal spark hovered in the air a moment, than zipped toward me with a furious buzz.
Puck’s hand shot out, snatching the bug from the air, hurling it to the floor. For a split second, it lay there glinting coldly against the ice. Then his boot smashed down and ground the bug into oblivion.
I struggled upright, breathing hard, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Puck knelt in front of me, one shoulder covered in blood, his whole body tense with concern.
“Meghan.” One of his hands smoothed my cheek, rough and urgent. “Talk to me. Are you all right?”
I nodded. “I think so.” My voice came out harsh and raspy, and my throat burned like I’d been gargling with razor blades. Something cold and wet dripped onto my knee. I glanced up and saw that the ceiling was beginning to crack and melt. “Where’s Ash?”
Puck moved aside, looking grave. Ash was slumped against the wall in the corner, head down, one hand covering his still bleeding ribs. His eyes were open, staring at the floor, at nothing. Heart in my throat, I gingerly approached and knelt beside him, saw him shift, very slightly, away from me.
“Ash.” My worry for him, for Ethan, for my family, was a painful knot in my stomach. I longed to help him, but the image of my mom and Luke, frozen on the couch, filled me with dread and fear. If Ash had hurt them, if they were…I could never forgive him. “My mom,” I asked, staring into his face. “My stepdad. Did…did you…?”
He gave his head a small shake, a tiny movement in the shadows. “No,” he whispered without looking at me, his voice flat and dead. “They’re just…asleep. When the ice melts, they should be fine, with no memory of what happened.”
Relief bloomed through me, although short-lived. I reached out to touch his arm, and he flinched as if my touch was poison.
“What will you do with me now?” he whispered.
Puck’s shadow fell over us. I looked back and saw him holding Ash’s sword, a grim, frightening look on his face. For a second, I was afraid Puck would stab him right there, but he tossed the blade at Ash’s feet and turned away. “Think you can walk, Prince?”
Ash nodded without looking up. Puck pulled me reluctantly to my feet and drew me aside. “I’ll deal with Ash, Princess,” he murmured, holding up a hand to interrupt my protest. “Why don’t you check on your brother before we go?”
“I’d say Ash needs a healer, Princess.” Puck glanced back at the prince and made a face. “I know I would, if I’d had a metal bug stuck inside my head. Probably screwed him up pretty bad. Luckily, I know a healer not far from here, but we should go now.”
I looked back at Mom and Luke, at the water slowly dripping from their frozen silhouettes, and yearning twisted my stomach. I missed them, and who knew when I’d see them again. “We can’t stay, just a little while?”
“What would you tell them, Princess?” Puck gave me a look that was sympathetic and exasperated at the same time. “The truth? That a faery prince froze the inside of the house in order to draw you here and kill you?” He shook his head, making sense even as I hated him and his logic at that point. “Besides, we need to get his royal iciness to a healer, and soon. Trust me, it’s better if your folks never knew you were here.”
I gave my parents one last look and nodded slowly. “Right,” I sighed. “I was never here. Let me say goodbye to Ethan, at least.”
Feeling old inside and out, I retreated up the steps, pausing once to look back. Puck was crouched in front of the Unseelie prince, his lips moving soundlessly, but Ash was looking straight at me, his eyes glimmering slits in the gloom. Biting my lips, I continued on to Ethan’s bedroom.
I found him in the hallway, peering out between the railings, the blanket still draped over his shoulders. “Ethan!” I hissed, and he glanced up with big blue eyes. “What are you doing out here? I told you to stay in your room.”
“Where’s Mommy and Daddy?” he asked as I picked him up, carrying him back to his room. “Did you tell the bad person to go away?”
“They’ll be all right,” I told him with my own sense of relief. “Ash didn’t hurt them, and as soon as the ice melts, they’ll be back to normal.” Though they would probably wonder why the whole house was wet. The ice was melting rapidly; I stepped around several puddles as I crossed the hall into his room.
Ethan nodded, gazing at me solemnly as I set him on his bed. “You’re going away again, aren’t you?” he asked matter-of-factly, though his lip trembled and he sniffled, trying to hold back tears. “You didn’t come back to stay with me.”
I sighed, sitting beside him on the frozen bed. “Not yet,” I murmured, smoothing down his hair. “I wish I could. I really do, but…” Ethan sniffled, and I pulled him close. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “There are still some things I have to take care of.”
“No!” Ethan clung to me, burying his face in my side. “You can’t leave again. They won’t take you again. I won’t let them.”
“Princesss.” From the darkness under the bed, something latched on to my ankle, claws digging into my skin. I yelped, swinging my feet up onto the mattress, and Ethan gave a startled cry.
“Dammit, bogey!” My sore throat blazed with pain at the outburst, making me even angrier. I leaped off the bed and stalked to Ethan’s dresser, grabbing the flashlight still kept on top. Bogeys hated light, and the white beam of a flashlight could make them flee in terror. “I am so not in the mood for this,” I rasped, flicking on the beam. “You have three seconds to get out of here before I make you leave.”
“Meggie.” Ethan hopped off the bed and padded up, taking my hand. “It’s okay. It’s only Spider. He’s my friend.”
I looked at him, aghast. Since when did bogeys make friends with the kids they terrorized? I didn’t believe it, but a soft slithering sound came from under the bed, and two yellow eyes peered up at me.
“Fear not, Princesss,” it whispered, keeping a wary eye on the flashlight in my hand. “I am here under ordersss. Prince Asssh told usss to watch thisss houssse. It isss under the protection of the Unssseelie Court.”