“Since we’re on the subject,” Ash murmured after a few minutes of silent dancing, as our hearts and minds composed themselves, “you never answered my question.”
He sounded uncharacteristically unsure. I shifted in his arms and looked up, meeting his gaze. “What question?”
His eyes were deep gray in the dim light. Glamour shimmered around him, heavy in the air and in the dreams of those around us. For just a moment, the illusion of the human boy dancing with me wavered, revealing an unearthly faery with silver eyes, glamour pouring off of him in waves. Compared to the suddenly plain human dancers surrounding us, his beauty was almost painful.
“Do you love him?”
My breath caught. For the barest of seconds, I thought he meant Scott, but of course that wasn’t right. There was only one person he could mean. Almost against my will, I glanced behind me, through the swaying crowd of dancers, to where Puck stood at the edge of the light. His arms were crossed, and he was watching us with narrowed green eyes. My heart skipped a beat. I turned back, feeling Ash’s gaze on me, my mind spinning several directions at once. Tell him no, it whispered. Tell him Puck is just a friend. That you don’t feel anything for him.
“I don’t know,” I whispered miserably.
Ash didn’t say anything. I heard him sigh, and his arms tightened around me, pulling us closer together. We fell silent again, lost in our own thoughts. I closed my eyes, wanting time to freeze, wanting to forget about the scepter and the faery courts and make this night last forever.
But of course, it ended much too soon.
As the last strains of music shivered across the gym floor, Ash lowered his head, his lips grazing my ear. “We have company,” he murmured, his breath cool on my skin. I opened my eyes and looked around, peering through the heavy glamour for invisible enemies. A pair of slitted golden orbs stared at me from a table, floating in midair above the flowery centerpiece. I blinked, and Grimalkin appeared, bushy tail curled around himself, watching me. No one else in the room seemed to notice a large gray cat sitting in the middle of the table; they moved around and past him without a single glance. Puck met us at the edge of the dance floor, indicating he’d seen Grimalkin too. Casually, we walked up to the table, where Grimalkin had moved on to grooming a hind leg. He glanced up lazily as we approached.
“Hello, Prince,” he purred, regarding Ash through half-lidded eyes. “Nice to see you are not evil…well…you know. I assume you are here for the scepter, as well?”
“Among other things.” Ash’s voice was cold; fury rippled below the surface, and the air around him turned chilly. I shivered. He didn’t just want the scepter; he was out for revenge.
“Did you find anything, Grim?” I asked, hoping the other students wouldn’t notice the sudden drop in temperature. Grimalkin sneezed once and stood, waving his tail. His gold eyes were suddenly serious.
“I think you had best see this for yourself,” he replied. Leaping off the table, he slipped through the crowds and out the door. I took one last look around the gym, at my old classmates and teachers, feeling a twinge of sadness. I’d probably never see them again. Then Puck caught my gaze with his encouraging smile, and we followed Grimalkin out the doors into the night.
Outside, it was bitingly cold. I shivered in my thin gown, wondering if Ash’s mood could spread to the entire district. Ahead of us, Grimalkin slipped around a corner like a furry ghost, barely visible in the shadows. We followed him down the corridors, past numerous classrooms, and into the parking lot, where he stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, gazing out over the blacktop.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered. The entire lot—pavement, cars, the old yellow bus in the distance—was covered with a fine sheeting of white powder that sparkled under the moonlight. “No way. Is that…snow?” I bent and scooped up a handful of the white drifts. Wet, cold and crumbly. It couldn’t be anything else. “What’s going on? It never snows here.”
“The balance is off,” Ash said grimly, gazing around the alien landscape.
“Winter is supposed to hold the power right now, but with the scepter gone, the natural cycle is thrown off. So you get events like this.” He gestured to the snowy parking lot. “It will only get worse, unfortunately.”
“We have to get the scepter back now,” I said, looking down at Grimalkin. He gazed back calmly, as if snow in Louisiana was perfectly normal. “Grim, did you and Ironhorse find anything yet?”
The cat made a great show of licking his front paw. “Perhaps.”
I wondered if Ash and Puck ever felt the urge to strangle him. Apparently, I wasn’t asking the right questions. “What did you find?” Puck asked, and Grimalkin finally looked up.
“Maybe the scepter. Maybe nothing.” He flicked his paw several times before continuing. “But…there is a rumor on the streets of a great gathering of Iron fey in a factory in downtown San Jose. We located it, and it looks abandoned, so perhaps Virus has not gathered her army yet.”
“Where’s Ironhorse?” I asked.
Ash narrowed his eyes.
“I left him at the factory,” Grimalkin said. “He was ready to charge in, but I convinced him I would return with you and Goodfellow. He is still there, for all I know.”
“You left him alone?”
“Is that not what I just said, human?” Grimalkin narrowed his eyes at me, and I gave the boys a panicked look. “I suggest you hurry,” he purred, looking out over the parking lot. “Not only is Virus gathering a great army of Iron fey, but I do not think Ironhorse will wait very long. He seemed rather eager to charge in by himself.”
“Let’s go,” I said, glancing at Ash and Puck. “Ash, are you all right for this?
Will you be able to fight?”
He regarded me solemnly and made a quick gesture with his hand. The glamour fell away, the tuxedo dissolving into mist, as the human boy disappeared and the Unseelie prince took his place, his black coat swirling around him. I looked back at Puck and saw his tux replaced with his normal green hoodie. He gave me a once-over and grinned. “Not exactly dressed for battle, are you, Princess?”
I looked down at my gorgeous dress, feeling a pang of regret that it would probably be ruined before the night was out. “I don’t suppose I have time to change,” I sighed.
“No.” Grimalkin twitched an ear. “You do not.” He shook his head and glanced skyward. “What time is it?”
“Um…I don’t know.” I’d long given up wearing a watch. “Almost midnight, I think. Why?”
He appeared to smile, which was rather eerie. “Just sit tight, human. They will be here soon.”
“What are you talking…” I trailed off as a cold wind whipped across the parking lot, swirling the snow into eddies, making them dance and sparkle over the drifts. The branches rattled, an unearthly wailing rising over the wind and trees. I shivered, and saw Ash close his eyes.
“You called Them, caith sith?”
“They owed me a favor,” Grimalkin purred, as Puck glanced nervously at the sky. “We do not have the time to locate a trod, and this is the fastest way to travel from here. Deal with it.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, as both Ash and Puck moved closer, tense and protective. “Who’d he call? What’s coming?”
“The Host,” Ash murmured darkly.
“What…” But at that moment I heard a great rushing noise, like thousands of leaves rustling in the wind. I looked up and saw a ragged cloud moving toward us at a frightening speed, blotting out the sky and stars.
“Hang on,” Puck said, and grabbed my hand.
The black mass rushed toward us, screaming with a hundred voices. I saw dozens of faces, eyes, open mouths, before it was upon us, and I cringed back in fear. Cold, cold fingers snatched at me, bearing me up. My feet left the ground in a rush, and I was hurtling skyward, a shriek lodging in my throat. Icy wind surrounded me, tearing at my hair and clothes, numbing me to all feeling except a small spot of warmth where Puck still held my hand. I closed my eyes, tightening my grip as the Host bore us away into the night.
I don’t know how long the Host carried us through the sky, screeching and wailing in their unearthly voices. I don’t know if they had trods that let them move between worlds, if they could bend space and time, or if they just flew really, really fast. But what should have been hours felt like only minutes before my feet hit solid ground and I was falling forward. Puck’s grip on me tightened, jerking me to a halt before I could fall over. I clutched his arm to regain my balance, looking around dizzily.
We stood on the outskirts of an enormous factory. Across a bright parking lot, lit with neat rows of glowing streetlamps, a huge glass, steel and cement monstrosity loomed at the edge of the pavement. Though the lot was empty, the building itself didn’t look damaged in any way: no smashed windows, no graffiti streaking the sides. I caught glimpses of things moving along the walls, flashes of blue light, like erratic fireflies. A moment later, I realized they were gremlins—hundreds, if not thousands of them—scuttling over the factory like ants. The blue lights were the glow of their fangs, hissing, shrieking and baring teeth at each other. A chill ran through me, and I shivered.
“A gremlin nest,” Grimalkin mused, watching the swarm curiously.
“Leanansidhe said the gremlins congregate in places that have a lot of technology. It makes sense Virus would come here, too.”
“I know this place,” Ash said suddenly, and we all looked at him. He was gazing at the plant with a small frown on his face. “I remember Virus talking about it when I…when I was with her.” The frown grew deeper, and a shadow crept over his face. He shook it off. “There’s supposed to be a trod to the Iron Kingdom inside.”
Puck nudged my arm and pointed. “Look at that.”
I followed his finger to a sign at the front of the building, one of those big marble slabs with giant glowing words carved into it. “SciCorp Enterprises,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Coincidence?” Puck waggled his eyebrows. “I think not.”
“Where’s Ironhorse?” I asked, looking around.
“This way,” Grimalkin said, trotting along the edge of the parking lot. We followed, the boys slightly blurred at the edges, telling me they were invisible to humans, and me in my very conspicuous prom dress and heels that were so not useful for raiding a giant factory, or even walking down a sidewalk. To my right, cars zoomed past us on the street; a few slowed down to honk at me or whistle, and my cheeks burned. I wished I could glamour myself invisible, or at least have had time to change into something less cumbersome. Grimalkin led us around the factory, skirting the edges of the sidewalk, to a drainage ditch that separated one lot from the other. At the bottom of the ditch, oily black water pooled from a massive storm drain, trickling through the weeds and grass. Bottles and cans littered the ground, glinting in the moonlight, but there was no sign of Ironhorse.