All my blades were sharpened by the time Puck returned to the manor. Kelsey and Meghan had figured out how to take the crowns off. The same pieces from my vision were now safely stored in each of their rooms. I decided to avoid their wing of the house as much as possible; if I reacted badly to their conduits, no one knew how far the destruction would go.
My pendant flared, announcing Puck, and the door of course swung open on its own. A golden tabby padded in. I could tell by the way he walked that he had more time left, but the sight of the crown stopped him dead in his tracks.
I took a deep breath and said in a rush: “I know how much you don’t like this and I know how much you love to annoy me with my title, but I need to keep this on for as long as I can to see if it helps keep everything in check.” His ears pricked ever so slightly, although he didn’t move any closer. I cringed as he lashed his tail twice. “I’m sorry, mister. I never understood this in the first timeline and really need to figure it out now, before we’re attacked again.” It hurt me to meet the emerald depths. They were too emotionless.
Jumping onto the bed, Puck shifted in midair to land with his legs crossed under him. “I never understood it, either,” he admitted. “All I knew was that it hurt you multiple times, and teasing you about the title behind it was the only way I could keep your mind off it.” He seemed to distance himself, and a smirk played at the corner of his mouth.
“My mistress with a monster is in love,” I grumbled.
“Quote me on this, little warrior.” He swept forward to pin me against the headboard. One hand held my wrists together while the other cupped my cheek. “I know you’d risk everything to protect the rest of us. But I’m not going to watch you get torn apart when it all goes to hell.” He touched his forehead to mine, careful of the gem. “A monster I may be, yet my mistress has always cared for me.”
I smiled slightly. “Did any of that play actually happen?”
“Not exactly as Shakespeare wrote it, no. It was a tale passed along in his family, for the most part. Very common in London for an oral story, among others, by the time he wrote it down.” The stoicism in his gaze began to ebb. He pulled back the tiniest bit. “I would never make you fall in love with an ass, little warrior.”
What he purposely left in that sentence, I took. “I already have,” I teased.
His thumb traced my bottom lip. “I’m not nearly as bad as what I could force you into.” I saw the remainder of what I did to him, old affection and current spell warring over his features.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” I breathed, unable to move my mouth too much. Unable to do much of anything beyond hope that the crown didn’t ramp up my emotions. Puck continued to torture me slowly, never once letting go of my wrists. It tugged at my past abuses and definitely got my adornments’ reactions for that. My voice was ragged when I spoke. “Puck…”
A sound torn between a growl and a purr rumbled in his chest. “You might be the death of me. You know that, right?”
“Goodfellow!” Meghan called from somewhere downstairs.
With a single word, he shut down. It was something I would do. “Time to go.” He moved without his usual grace.
I read the sorrow in his stride. “Go where?” As the door began to close behind him, he was shaking his head. I could have followed him if I wanted to. Deciding it was better I stayed in my room, I ran my tongue along my teeth. They were still fang-sharp from several hours ago. Something was wrong. “Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn,” I said quietly. In no time, Ash pushed the door open. “Where is Kelsey?” I asked instinctively.
“Out with Meghan and Puck somewhere. They left a few minutes ago.” He searched my face. “What is it?”
I yanked his cloak from the Unseelie Court from my closet. It soon became a cape of magically hanging blades, my swords more than familiar at my hips. “How fast can we catch up to them?” I pulled on fingerless gloves that were spiked on the knuckles.
Ash tilted his head slightly. “How fast can you track them?”
“Let’s go.” I rushed down the stairs and outside at a speed that should have been too fast even for a sidhe. Ash somehow kept up, only a stride or two behind, and it was animalistic precision that drove us both.
Slashing at a tree that reached too close, Ash lowered his sword so that blue light cast shadows on his face. “Focus on the track. I’ll keep them off you.” Restless, I nodded and dove farther into the surrounding woods. Connected to the wyldwood but not exactly Faery, the trees were alive with fey glamour, and I was grateful Ash didn’t tire easily. I did my best to dodge the nimble fey branches, but they were constantly reaching for the two of us, as I could tell they had snagged at my friends.
Tigers pounded through the forest with ongoing roars. The woodland turned its attention to the new predators. However they knew to follow us, I silently thanked Ren and Kishan for the distraction.
When Ash and I plunged through a trod, I got the disorienting feeling that something bad had happened on the other side. I took a dagger from my belt. As soon as we arrived, Ash stepped up next to me. The cloak became a living mass of shifting blades that literally had my back.
“No.” I looped around where we had materialized. “No, the trail can’t just end.” Frustration swirled inside me, the same core that could ignite the flames. Ash silently tamped them down with his glamour. “Where did they go? They can’t disappear!”
I was looking not only for their auras, but a glamour imprint, a boot mark, anything that would lead in their direction. There was nothing. “Does any other trail cross over theirs?” Ash suggested. I shivered at the thought of my friends being captured, but there was not much I could do if we didn’t find them. I doubled back to where the trod let out and started anew.
The instant I faced south, the crown sent out a flare of light. Ash and I took off quickly. My pendant started to burn at my chest, so his probably was as well. I hoped Puck’s did the same to let him know we were coming.
The earth quaked under our feet. Ash drew up short. “Starr, wait. There has to be some sort of portal at work, and if it’s anything like a one-way mirror, we could be in trouble.”
“They don’t have their crowns,” I reminded him grimly.
“Yes, but they have Puck and their own magic. They’ll be fine until we figure out this maze.”
A thorn pierced my heart. I gasped at the force of it, at the tug on each of my wrists. Ash pressed close to me, his features lined with discomfort. They were close. My energy was draining away, and I would feel like hell tomorrow, but they were close. I sent my cloak of blades out in every direction. Ash made no sound as a knife accidentally grazed his shoulder, merely tucked me into his side. Illusions shattered around us like the mirror he alluded to.
Dozens of soldiers circled us. “We don’t have time for this,” Ash said hypocritically. He threw out a hand.
With them frozen, I clenched my jaw when he met my gaze. “I don’t have a response for that.” What little Unseelie blood I had kept me from sliding on the ice, though Ash did walk more confidently than I did. My cloak once more draped around my shoulders, it was all I could do to wait for some guidance.
It did not come from my crown this time. It came from the bond exploding to life with a crashing raven’s caw.
My instincts screamed in echo of Puck’s cry. Ash bolted before I did, leaving me only a pace behind as I took off. Where the golden tabby was –– since I had no doubt that was the cause of his raven to speak, despite having a perfectly capable roar –– Kels and Meg were also hidden.
“Starr.” Ash pulled me into an alcove created in the side of a hill. It warped into a closet in an unfamiliar temple. “Go for Puck. I’ll get your friends.”
There was no time to point out Puck wanted nothing to do with me, or even if he did, that he wouldn’t let it show. Ash went down one hallway. My pendant led me toward another corridor, although I looked over my shoulder once to find Ash already gone. I sprinted through the dank space, the sense of something not being right trailing after me. It would be so easy to let it consume me. That allowed for the flames, though, and I wanted no part of them yet.
I was running past a well-hidden door when the pendant made me go skidding backwards. I slammed against the wall instinctively and flew into a pitch-black room. Green faery lights danced in the corners at my sudden presence. Wheezing at the scent of scorched things, I called my fire up to block the stench.
“Puck.” As my eyes grew accustomed to the faint lighting, I could see marks of abuse on his clothes, his face etched in the trophies of war. A lump formed in my throat. “What have they done to you?”
The trickster coughed. “Nothing compared to what they have planned for you,” he rasped. Checking him over while the chains helped keep him upright, I barely touched the left side of his ribs when he hissed.
In reality, it was a vision granted to me by the crown. His hiss of pain brought me out of the haze. I splayed my fingers in his fur, unsure of whether that was imagined, my gaze searching his torn face. The emerald depths spoke the truth, as had the vision. Before I could think to swallow it, a sob ripped from my throat. The golden tabby lifted his head weakly.
“I don’t give a damn what they have planned for me,” I said, heart pounding, “as long as we get you out of here. They will pay for what they've done.”
The haze returned for a moment, long enough for him to shake his head and reply, “Like hell I’m leaving you.”
“They blocked your telepathy again,” I realized, undoing the chains carefully. They were made of iron, but thankfully not tight enough to cause any real damage. I kissed his fuzzy ear. “Maybe you should stop trying to avoid me,” I commented as I went behind him. It would be hard to guide him out of here when he looked ready to fall over.
Not a second after I turned my back, a sickening thump echoed in the room, and I whipped around to find that Puck had been knocked against the far wall. A man I did not recognize stood above his body, malice gleaming in the fathomless depths.
Robin Goodfellow is mine. I lashed out at the general, merely assuming that was what he was, and was surprised he put up little resistance. The whole thing took no longer than a few seconds. Had I really moved that fast?
If the crown pulsing on top of my head was any indication, I had.
“Puck,” I repeated more forlornly. The tiger still hadn’t moved. “You have to change for me. I can’t carry you by myself.” I slid my pendant off, something I had never done, and tied it around his neck. “You’re not dead, mister. I know you’re not.”
Leave before more come. His voice was distant in my head.
My grief warred with my stubborn streak. “Change, Seelie fool! How do you expect me to save you, damn it.”
As if on cue, Ash appeared in the doorway, illuminated in brilliant silvery blue. “There you are.” He took one survey of the still-dark room and swept forward. Puck did not look right draped over his shoulders, but I was not in a position to comment on it. “Come on. The girls are waiting for us nearby.” I followed him closely, more out of fear of losing Puck than anything else.
Where was the queen that had rewritten destiny so they could live? What happened to the strength of that girl when she bargained her life away?
The same detachment from that memory flowed into my veins. I snapped my fingers. The hallway went up in flames behind us. It was an unnerving sight for Meghan and Kelsey, I presumed, but I had no feeling. Puck would live, and we would get out of here in one piece. It was simply a matter of if I wanted our enemies to live as well, to fight against us another day.
Since the beginning, my life has only ever been warfare and death, running in the hopes that I could have one more day. Why should I give them the same miracle?
It happened too fast to say exactly when, but soon enough even my footprints left burns on the grounds. Once we were farther away, back in the hills that had sheltered the prison, I released some of my inner fire onto the wretched, unseen building and its portal.
Because of my path of destruction, no one followed us through the trod. The forest jerked away from my vengeful heat, equal to the sun at its peak in summer. I purposely scorched several of the trees I knew had tugged at my dark faery earlier, not caring if any of them attempted to attack me in response. Ash had Puck; both of them had my sanity.
The raid on both sides would not go unpunished. I was far from naïve enough to think that. Because of the knowledge they would retaliate, this time with more force than we had ever seen, I sent out warnings to all of my allies. As soon as I made sure every person that needed to be in the manor was safely inside, I put up a wall of flame around the clearing. Then my detachment faded, and I had to control my breathing to stop myself from hyperventilating.
Ash set Puck down on my bed wordlessly. I tossed my cloak into the closet, the blades returning of their own accord to their hiding places. The prince removed his gear, black T-shirt made darker from spots of blood. At least he didn’t seem injured.
“Go.” Ash leaned against the door. “I’ll be here to prevent anyone from coming in.”
“See if you could prevent me from passing out.”
When I looked down at Puck’s limp form, I was reminded of another time. The first time I had ever had a real conversation with him, actually. He had come into my room, a drunken, half-dead raven, shifting into a shirtless, bloody mess before I could yell at him to get out. The tiger in front of me might make me want to find the firefruit or whatever fey snack had gotten him wasted.
Deciding that was something for later, I set to work on the trickster. My senses pulled in to focus on just me and Puck, and Ash and the rest of the manor fell away.
“I didn’t think you had the strength to get into my head.” Red hair disheveled, Puck no longer had blood on his face, but I could still see the marks left on him in the physical world. “Well, that’s not entirely true. You’re always in my head, little warrior, whether I want you here or not.”
Closing the distance between us, I placed my hand on his chest. Under my palm, his heart beat irregularly, even for a faery. “You need to come back with me, mister. What good is hiding in here?”
“I get to keep you forever,” he said a bit too quickly.
As he lowered his chin, realizing I had power over him even here, I took his face in both hands and smiled gently at him. “You get to keep the thought of me,” I corrected softly. “But I’m still going to be with you in reality, Puck, mourning you day and night because you don’t want to get up for fear of watching me walk away. I’ll still wish I got through to you, knowing you’re in here, broken even after your wounds have healed.” I forced myself to flicker for a moment, as if I changed my mind about leaving.
Puck sighed. “You don’t know what they put me through, little warrior. And when I thought I would have the chance to rest, right before you came to rescue me, I heard their plans for you.” He was careful not to move too much, for obvious reasons.
“You were in that place for what, an hour?” He grimaced. I did my best to stop my grip from tightening. “I know it was more than long enough for you. I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out their protection sooner.” I mimicked him from earlier, my thumb on his bottom lip. His eyes sparked with life. “You wouldn’t be able to do this unless you woke up.”
Gaze darting to my lips, he closed his eyes. “Out.” The order was barely a whisper.
Despite the lack of force behind it, I complied. Ash unhitched himself from the door when I stood. “I take it he’s comatose until further notice.” I nodded wearily. Too much had happened in too short a time. “Come here.” I folded against him exhaustedly, resting one hand on his chest. Ash tucked my head under his chin. “Unless a dire emergency comes up, you’re staying in the manor for a few days. Deal?”
“If I can sleep the whole time,” I mumbled into his shirt.
His chuckle was hollow. “Sure.” He loosened his grip the instant I moved, although I didn’t leave his embrace. “We can go to my room, if you want. Kishan can watch over Puck until you’re ready to check on him again.” His offer was tempting.
Still, I shook my head. “If he comes to and I’m not in here, I… I don’t know. It’s just weird to think about.”
“Love does that to a person.” Ash pulled back enough to look down at me. “Even you, untouchable,” he added gently. I would have scoffed if it weren’t true.
Pecking his cheek, I slowly walked over to the bed. “Thank you for everything, Ash.” I tucked the trickster’s unruly red bangs back from his sweaty forehead. Apparently, fevers were common after dealing with a forceful power.Ash left without another word, the emotions raw in his silver gaze. We were bound, after all. The three of us would triumph or suffer together.