“Oh my God.” I rushed forward. Pedestals glittered in the light of the four seasons. When I turned back to Rowan, his blue eyes were almost gentle. The softness on his face might have unnerved me some other time, yet I was too amazed to care. “I don’t know what to say.”
Rowan’s grin returned. “You might not be able to say thanks, but your gratitude is a powerful emotion on its own.”
“How did you find these?” I faced the pedestals once again. The Ice Prince came to stand beside me, knowing I wouldn’t hear him through my awestruck thoughts.
Abruptly, my euphoria at seeing them came crashing down. I recognized the crowns not only from the past I rewrote, but the visions I recently suffered through. Rowan glanced at me. “What is it?” he asked. “I thought you would’ve been thrilled to see them again… for longer than ten seconds,” he added swiftly.
I touched the centered glass case gently, and it sizzled with power. The wards refused to melt even for the one who created them. “It’s just that I don’t think we’re ready for them.” Liar, the wind hissed.
“Didn’t you forge this clearing so that they revealed themselves when you were ready? Your magic stems from the fey, meaning it cannot lie.” Rowan lightly touched the small of my back. “What is this really about, Starr?”
As much as I wanted to keep the hallucination a secret, I found myself telling him. One of the least trusted sidhe in all of Faery, but for some reason I could not stop the words. Later I realized it was that same lack of faith that would allow me to deny anything he said, if he went behind my back and told the others at all. Rowan was not that much of a threat. To me, at least. When it was all on the table, I watched him from the corner of my eye, too afraid to even breathe. If he agreed I was crazy, I’d have to find a way to drain my magic into rewriting history yet again.
Luckily, that wasn’t what happened. “How long have you been lugging that around on your shoulders?” he demanded.
“Some-odd hours.” I shrugged. I felt better than I had since leaving my faeries. “I thought it was my own paranoia that was taking advantage of me. Why should I have worried the others?”
Rowan snorted sarcastically. “Your very life worries my little brother. I can only imagine what the trickster is like after all that’s happened. A vision that we can easily prevent will have no effect on them.” He scowled when his eyes fell on the crowns, conflicting emotions vanishing into a stoic mask. “But it seems obvious to me you shouldn’t be kept away from these, either.”
A tremor rippled along the ground. Thornguards erupted from the trees, and Rowan had his sword drawn before I could blink. I also had a dagger in my hand, which I didn’t recall unsheathing in the midst of my new adrenaline rush.
“Why do I get the feeling our new friends are Iron?”
If the affinities lashing the air were any indication… “Make sure they don’t touch you,” I growled.
Frost crept across the grass, freezing the entire clearing. Rowan tossed his hand toward them, fingers splayed, and ice shot through the air. A wave of Iron magic whipped toward him, but I caught it in a whirlwind, straining against the invasion. Except for Machina’s forces, the fey could not touch iron; Iron glamour killed them. But damn, were they powerful.
A streak of silver lightning bolted down toward us. The prince was slammed backward, over the pedestals. “Rowan!” I stared at his unmoving form for a heartbeat too long. The breath was knocked out of me when my back crashed against the invisible glass cases. I straightened, my muscles trembling from the force. “You’re going to regret that,” I snarled. The sound of shattering glass cascaded around me, drowning out the Thornguards’ fight. Triplet waves of power swirled above the crowns before whipping outward.
Even though I could not touch the crowns themselves, I could control the ancient magic. Well, my anger could. I went into a literal red haze.
For a heartbeat, I got the feeling I was about to explode; so much fire burned in my veins. I used all the strength I knew how in order to keep them from poisoning Rowan or the Thornguards. The crowns helped that much, at least.
“Starr!” A blonde I did not recognize at first rushed over to me. Roars echoed through my land. “Let it go, Starr. Please.”
I bared my teeth –– fangs, really, since they had sharpened during the assault –– when she reached for me. More of the enemy died, until all but one were made of ashes. I turned my heated glare to the remaining assailant. “Give Machina a message from me. Hell, give it to Lokesh for all I care.” I got in his face, tasting blood and fire in the back of my throat. “Nothing will stop me from defeating them.” With a quick word of banishment from me, he disappeared.
Black hair and icy blue eyes met my gaze next. One side of his jaw was bruised; for all the world, that was it. “Release it, Starr,” Rowan murmured.
The tigers had shifted back and were standing warily beside the blonde: Kelsey. “What if she can’t?” my friend breathed. Fear and determination warred in her expression. Was she afraid for me… or of me?
“Take your crown, Kels,” Ren ordered quietly. “Maybe we can help her out.”
As Kishan drew a weird shape in the air, an unearthly howl ripped through the solemnity of the clearing. I realized it was a similar sound as the wail in my head, although I remained silent, hoping to contain what I could.
Meghan materialized in front of me, with two highly unwanted faeries in tow. Sage was also with them. Transfixed, I watched Meghan and Kelsey reach for their crowns at the same time. They couldn’t seem to control their arms as, in a flash, the crowns were raised to rest on my friends’ heads. All five princes emitted a huge, collective sigh of relief.
“Not… better,” I reminded them through gritted teeth. If anything, removing the two outer crowns only pissed off the center of the ancient magic even more.
Sage stepped closer. “Try to take yours.”
Following his lead, Rowan and Ash added a barrier of Winter glamour behind me, in case I went on a rampage. I took a deep breath with my first step; the air shivered against my skin. I was tempted to spin around and get rid of them. Clenching my left hand into a fist, I focused on breathing, not the fire that wanted to consume me. Kishan and Ren stood sentry to the girls, who were both queens in their own right, especially with those crowns. I stared at mine.
“I can’t,” I hissed, standing with the toe of my boot pressed against the middle pedestal. My arms were pinned to my sides by an invisible force. “I-It won’t l-let me.”
Frost crept along the back of my neck, a reminder to stay in control. “Who was the one that placed it there?” Ash inquired, moving as close to me as he could get.
Someone’s bad idea was that the trickster should force Summer into my veins. I grew numb as the fire was pushed back. Puck came to stand at my side, fingers almost brushing. I refused to soften, even though I already had, mentally. Of course he had taken my crown while I forged the protection in this place. He made no move to reach for it now. Without the bond to speak telepathically, I still felt the sheer expectance coming from him.
“You don’t have to take it back.” He pitched his voice so that only I heard. “We can figure this out.”
I found the strength to wrap my pinky around his. Forcing both hands to relax at my sides, I had to keep myself from shaking as Puck –– and his heat –– shifted slightly away, breaking my hold. He picked up the thing no problem. The thin band was fashioned after wings, the tips curling toward the back. Platinum held its inner magic mostly in check, and a small diamond hung down, presumably near my third eye. Power whipped at us, but the barriers kept my friends safe.
Unlike Meghan and Kelsey, though, Puck was very much in control.
Tremors racked my body. The trickster’s eyes still glowed with mischief, no longer the emotional mess he had been these past weeks. I couldn’t be sure through the red haze in my vision, but I thought I saw a flicker of remorse in the emerald depths. I might have been numbed by his glamour, yet I could feel what little self-control I had left fading away.
“Puck,” Ash said sharply.
The trickster shook his head. “Do you remember the pain it caused her? I don’t like her at the moment, sure, but that doesn’t mean I wish her ill.”
Wincing, I heard a fifth wail; one from when Kishan brought them here, three from each of the crowns being removed. This time I recognized what really was my own agony echoed in its cry, whatever it was, and wanted so badly to forget I made Puck like this.
Rowan drifted at the edge of my periphery. A glance at his dark features told me he could guess what I was thinking. I averted my gaze. In the hallucination-vision, all of them were happy. And I did not exist.
Suddenly, I was ready to bolt. The landscape wavered around us. In the distance, some Thornguards shouted in surprise. My essence flickered, too, ancient power responding to my nerves. The thunder that roared in my ears was mine alone; briefly, I wondered if I would spontaneously start bleeding, as I had when we found Fanindra. My friends were afraid of me, that much I knew now. It was more than a slap to the face.
When Ash lunged and took the crown from Puck, triplet wreaths of ice wove onto the three sidhe’s heads. Golden leaves appeared above Kishan’s and Ren’s brows, as well. My own crown pulsed with grayish light. Rowan ordered the Thornguards home, which became a brilliant opportunity for the others to escape as well. Only the Winter and Summer fey stayed, Meghan not included.
“Why do we keep waiting to give this to her?” Sage wondered aloud. “She needs it.”
“Being in charge does have its advantages,” Rowan mused, in the hopes of distracting me. “She’s already good at it.”
Everything went in and out again, for a good half a minute this time. Ash cursed and swept forward. On impulse, I knelt, fire surging in my blood. The crown was a shockingly welcome weight on my head. Even though it was honestly pretty light.
“I swear to God, Ash, if anything happens––”
As I rose, I stopped Puck from making an empty promise he would have had to keep. My skin still crawled. I hoped it came from the initial rush. The astonishment on his face was fleeting, but it was the perfect complement to his fey beauty.
Above us, red light washed over the sky. I had no idea what that meant, despite my clearer senses. I watched the clouds turn varying hues of pink and gold. “You should head back to Tir Na Nog before you’re missed,” I remarked to the two elder brothers.
“Are you okay?” Sage asked. “Nothing out of control?”
I smiled mirthlessly. “We’re good.”
“Come find me if you ever need an outlet.” Rowan, the always charming idiot that he was, winked suggestively. The two of them departed.
Despite himself, Puck growled and swiped at a nearby tree without striking it. I guessed it would have hit him back anyway. Ash glanced at me. “Possessive even now, isn’t he?” the prince murmured, not quite chuckling.
“Why did you do that?” Puck demanded, whirling to glare at us both. “You know what that thing has done to her –– to all of us!”
Ash met the protective frenzy calmly. “Why do you care?” he replied with cool detachment. After waiting for the question to sink in, he went on: “I also know what it was doing to her just now. She’s unstable enough as it is, Goodfellow. Keeping her from some kind of wayward balance would only make it worse.” Like he always did, he had a point.
The trickster rolled his eyes extravagantly, then let them rest on my crown. “I should hate you.” He sighed. “I should hate you both, but I don’t.” Meeting Ash’s mercurial gaze, he added, “And I don’t know why.”
“We love you, too, Puck,” I answered. The words came easily off my tongue, and Ash, for whatever reason, chuckled softly.
Puck snorted in contempt. “The Unseelie never truly love anything, and you are too much like them after being around Ash for so long.” He shook his head again. “I stand corrected. I do hate you.”
Shakespeare drifted into my head. “Ere she comes, curst and sad. / Cupid is a knavish lad. / Thus to make poor females mad,” I quoted perfectly. Puck narrowed his eyes. “Wasn’t that you, mister? Out of context, in this case, but still. Messing with some poor mortals so that you could distract yourself from a recent tragedy?” I knew more about him than I cared to admit. He thought I was still groping for information at times, my mind unable to keep up with the influx of memories. But once I learned something about him, how could I ever forget?
“The only tragedy in my life was that of meeting you,” he retorted.
“Yes, it’s certainly a tragedy we found someone capable of keeping up with you, if not staying ahead,” Ash taunted. “Return to Arcadia, Puck. I’m sure you can find plenty of girls to annoy there.”
The trickster vanished. I cocked an eyebrow at Ash. “What was that for?” During all of that, I was grateful to learn my strength had come back.“He’ll be home in an hour at most,” Ash observed. “If there’s anything I know about Puck, it’s that he can’t stay away from you.”