Sweat dripped down the back of my neck, easily wicked away by my gear. The air was too still in the valley. Tiny blades of grass shifted without a breeze, flickering and ebbing like waves in response to my impatience. I toyed with the smallest leaves on the trees, knowing that under other circumstances, I might have liked it here.
This wasn’t peace. This was silence, enough to drive one mad.
I lounged in a lower branch of an oak, still high enough from the ground that I couldn’t get up and pace. My perch overhung the valley’s clearing, which was littered with flowers that wilted and grew according to Meghan’s will.
Kelsey, either with more patience or self-control, merely looked at her fingernails. The only sign of her boredom was the glittering particles between each finger.
Yes, this was definitely what insanity felt like.
A tremor rippled along the ground. I perked up from my slouched position, gaze raking the valley floor. Kelsey and Meghan both glanced at me before turning away. They were told not to give up my perch until the last minute, lest I be targeted first. In that one moment I knew they hadn’t felt it. I held my breath. Another ghosted my senses, as if the earth was trying not to shiver.
Pain exploded in my skull. I forced myself not to react, instead drawing on the pool of sunlight that infiltrated the oak’s shade. My elite were out there.
Quickly as they had come, the tremors stopped. I swung to my feet. Balance was nothing special as the bark helped me stand.
It was a heavy question, whose magic controlled that brief second. One I had to answer when my mind wasn’t torn toward a thousand directions. God, I heard them –– every breath –– every footfall.
How could my friends not know?
“Meghan.” My eyes snapped down. A tall, well-muscled sidhe stood before my friends. Kelsey and Meghan both leaped to their feet, although they made no move on the weapons at their sides. A long black coat hid what I expected was his private arsenal, should his power fail for even the slightest moment. I couldn’t see his face, but his long silver hair sent enough chills down my spine. Energy crackled in the valley now; I never thought I’d miss the silence so much. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Machina.” She met his lightning, glamour versus glamour, in a way I barely recognized coming from her. “I wish I could say the same.”
Darkness descended on the beautiful valley. Enveloped by shadow, Lokesh materialized in front of Kelsey. “Hello, my sweet.” She flinched at his words, which wrapped around the clearing.
I went unnoticed in my perch… for now. Every nerve inside me screamed for a fight. As long as they stood there, doing nothing besides talk, I had no reason to rush this battle. Especially with my friends so close to being lost, considering they could be teleported with the leaders at any time.
“Who would leave such pretty things out here alone?” My blood froze in my veins. Green eyes flickering with lightning, it could be none other than Ferrum who stared at the blondes. His metallic gray skin out-paled Machina, who was white as death, if such a thing were even possible. His white hair seemed recently cropped and was unkempt, tight to the sides of his pointy head. “Maybe we should take this discussion elsewhere, friends.”
Unconsciously, I blocked his use of glamour to begin opening a trod. Pretending not to notice, Meghan and Kelsey stood back-to-back to face the triangle as best as they could. I paced to the end of my branch, scouring the valley for signs of a conflict. There were no hints of either army.
“Don’t you think you should join our meeting, Starr?” Machina called, lifting beady black eyes to my perch.
There was a shit-eating grin on my face as I responded, “You can try to pull me down, Majesties, but none of you will ever succeed.” There was a tug around my waist, at my wrist, even on my hair, yet my words held true. The tree would not give me up.
All at once, the shadows eased off our valley. I shuddered with the effort I hadn’t realized I was putting in; my elite could have seen in the dark if necessary. Meghan shrieked as both Iron faeries tore her from Kelsey. Lokesh wrapped like a wraith around Durga’s chosen, and I gasped and fell to one knee. The oak was my guard, but I was theirs. Agony swept through me almost on cue.
Roars shook the valley, accompanied by the sounds of a fight I’d been waiting for. “Get the girl!” Ferrum shouted over the new fray. “We must leave now!”
“You can try,” I ground out. Suddenly the oak’s powerful hold on my feet was released, although I still felt my center of gravity combined with the tree. I nimbly climbed higher. “Come and get me, decrepit wizards!”
That was stupid in and of itself. Lokesh’s darkness charged at me. Sunlight filtered through the woodland and caused another, more unearthly shriek. I wanted to join it after the sound crashed into my head. Taking myself higher, I had to jump from my oak to another one, the distance between me and the ground increasing even more. I could feel the difference as I leapt from branch to branch, though, the shadows following me as fast as they could. I was glad I didn’t fear heights, except I knew I was bound to fall soon. My taunts would end up letting one of them target the center of gravity that wasn’t exactly mine.
“Tsk, Starr.” I halted in my ascent. Far below me, Ferrum crushed Meghan under his wrought-iron boots. Machina stood nearby, looking vaguely uncomfortable, while Lokesh continued to chase me and incapacitate Kelsey at the same time. Ferrum smiled darkly at me. “Why do you never learn?”
The stench of death overwhelmed me. He would kill her, the girl they needed more than me, if it meant I surrendered. And they knew the army they’d brought had fallen to my elite’s weapons.
“Come down, Starr.” Machina leered. “Are you a protector or not?”
I bolted upright, suddenly finding myself safe in my room. My heart still pounded as if I had been climbing for real. The silence, after what I had dreamt, really was deafening. I scrubbed my hands over my face, nails biting into my cheeks in assurance. Kels and Meg were still in the manor; I could feel it.
Jumping when the door opened, I sighed when Puck gave me a puzzled smirk. It faded as soon as he noticed my ragged state. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I lied without thinking. His emerald gaze was so much different than the lightning-green depths Ferrum held. I tried to relax. He was back on his feet, and we were safe. “How long was I out, Goodfellow?” I asked formally, my racing heart attempting to catch up with my brain.
Leaning against the wall, he folded his arms across his chest. “A few hours,” he answered. “Your normal sleeping time, if memory serves.” I couldn’t take stoic Puck. He was too distant.
What I also couldn’t take was the fact I actually remembered that dream as vividly as if it happened already. Usually, dreams and reality melded together to shape my decisions, unlike the influence of my visions, but this… I sighed and settled back onto my pillow. “I just want this to be over,” I breathed before the words had even crossed my mind.
The trickster did not move closer. “Seeing as how you tell him everything else, do you want me to get Ash?” There was a bitter note to his voice. I heard it and still ignored him. Thankfully, he stayed in his position at the wall, although I knew it was more out of an old authority than it was to make sure I was alright. I could have sent him for Ash if I wanted. Burying my face in the bedsheets, I caught no trace of his presence. “Starr?” He shifted closer now, but I was busy analyzing the fact that he didn’t sleep last night. “What’s wrong?”
Or something else. I cast out my senses. Maybe the valley was what happened, and this was all a dream. If they captured us, it probably would take me a while to recall such a harsh defeat. Nope, everything seemed as normal as it would without us baiting the leaders. Had it even happened yet?
“Puck,” I whispered, doing nothing to hide my fear. “Am I going insane?” It felt like it. Plus, there was always the matter of the wait…
Fire erupted along my arms, not burning anything. I stared at him through the flames. “Come here, little warrior,” he sighed, dropping his façade. I stood carefully, watching my footsteps for any sign of flame. Puck folded me against his chest; the flames licked at him, too. Unscathed, he met my gaze, emerald depths gleaming with something I couldn't place. I closed my eyes against it. “What did you see?” he murmured, talking to a caged animal. I didn’t blame him for thinking like that.
When he touched our foreheads together, I showed him. My eyes stayed closed the whole time. As I opened them, I caught a glimpse of how Puck saw me: Knotted brown hair highlighted by what should be blue-hot flames, irises burning bright gold in a terribly haggard face. I returned to my body just as quickly, grateful for our bond but not believing I was as fearless as he thought. Tears leaked silently down my face. “What are you thinking?” I rasped as his arms tightened around me.
“That Rowan’s battle plan just turned to dust.” He kissed the top of my head. “I’m glad you weren’t on the ground with them as obvious bait, but if it had been my choice, I would have been up in that tree with you.”
Figures. I shook my head to clear it. “As what, Goodfellow? They’d have noticed a golden tabby much faster than me.” He growled. My flames stretched higher in response. It was a stupid move to pull away, and Puck let me go surprisingly easily. “I don’t have it in me to tell the others. Ash, maybe, but…” A thorn pierced my still-not-calm heart.
Puck twitched at the same time I flinched. “Then let’s get ice-boy up here.” He shifted to save his time.
My dark faery knocked before walking in. His silver gaze was shadowed with the start of his brooding face, because he already knew what I wanted to talk about. The fire died at his presence. “I hope the worry I feel pouring off Goodfellow is just him being his usual overprotective self,” he commented, taking a seat at the foot of the bed.
“Sort of.” I sent him the dream without need for touch. Things were always easier the second time. Ash stiffened at the abrupt ending. “Maybe we should rethink this bait thing. We’re important enough to draw them into the open, but they know how to keep us there.”
Raking a hand through his black hair, Ash shook his head. “If that dream means anything, it’s that they’ll stop at nothing to get to you three. We know that Ferrum is allied with them after all, so we have to be aware of double the Iron forces than we’ve been fighting.”
We should also be aware of the fact they knew she was there the whole time. If it wasn’t for the dryads I’m pretty sure were in those trees, she would have been taken down. And it was all in a damn dream! Puck was lit from the inside with fury.
Shocked that I could see the aura of his power, I was grateful he stayed a tiger. There was no telling what he wanted to do; I was afraid turning human would cause the darker side of his trickster ways to come out. Ash glanced between the two of us. “Yes, but if you remember as well as I do, Puck, her dreams are a powerful touch of reality. Clearly this plan for the valley was going to backfire and the leaders would take them out from under our noses. There’s someone on the inside, working for us, and they want our queens to be safe.” He thought their traitor would give us the win we needed, while the betrayal of the Seelie Court hung over me, a scar that did not want to heal.
“Yeah, well, not enough people want me safe,” I replied caustically. “They might lose this round if we change our plan, but there’s no telling what could happen next.” I knew deep down where this was going. “We’ll always be fighting, even when their leaders are gone.”
I’m not giving you up to them. Puck snarled at me.
“I’m not asking you to.”
Ash frowned. “As balanced as you two are together, we will need to separate you for the plan. Starr’s okay with it,” he reminded the trickster, whose fury blazed up again. Ash increased the chill coming off his body, keeping my flames at bay. “Once our people start taking the upper hand, you and I both know we won’t be able to keep up with her, Puck. And Starr––” The mercurial depths filled with unconditional trust and brotherly love. “You’re the key to all of this. If we can get the last of your powers to pick up from the past, I know you won’t have to worry about fighting any other followers.”
“You’re asking me to change destiny?” Second time, I mused.
“No. What you could do with that level of magic would ensure our safety for the rest of time. I’m sure Puck already told you he’s going with you when you change history, but why go to all that trouble when you can just change the mentalities of our opponents after their main sources of power are gone?”
That was the Unseelie Prince talking. I had to admit I liked the change in his strategy, as well as the way he presented it. With Meghan, he was a knight through and through. With me or any of the others, he knew his stuff, and he did not have to worry about a queenly authority striking him down. It helped that he and I were equals in every other battle we had fought, since he once feared my retribution, as well.
And it was a sound idea. Despite Puck’s warning growl that I wasn’t going to get involved in this war any more than I already had, I thought about jumping on board with the plan.
“What are we supposed to do about baiting them?”
Ash grinned wickedly. “Do you really think risking all three queens is a good idea? Especially when we have one who can create illusions like no other?” he added, the chilly light on his face almost unrecognizable.
“I’d need something of theirs to hold it in place for that long.” My eyes darted to the crown resting on my dresser, which I did not remember taking off a second time. It emanated a faint, reassuring light that said otherwise, power hidden safely away. “Never mind.” I hoped I didn’t sound as enchanted as I felt. “Now all we need is a good setting where our armies can duke it out, and I can escape before I get caught in the fight.”
Sorry, princeling, but you can go ahead and tell the others this. I would sooner risk those blondes than give up my warrior queen.
The two of us stared at each other, cuing silently off even the slightest breath. “It isn’t really your choice,” Ash reminded him with a mirthless chuckle. “Think past your bruised heart, Goodfellow. Wouldn’t you rather save our courts as well as our girls?” He knew as well as I did than the war would either end with me crippled or dead. We just had to make sure Puck didn’t think about that, not with the trap on the line.
Huffing, the trickster lashed his tail. What’s a court worth if I have to watch her die again? He sat up straighter, emerald depths begging me to face him.
“Call Ren and your brothers into a meeting. Finish the plan so we have something to aim for, but don’t set a date yet. I need to be sure I can hold the illusion far longer than I’ll have to when we do launch this attack.” He dipped his head and left. When I finally turned to Puck, his arms were folded across his chest like earlier, legs tucked under himself in a way only a cat could accomplish. I mimicked the scowl on his face. “Don’t give me that look, mister. We can have the same argument for the next millennium, but the outcome will be the same no matter how many times we get into it.”
His teeth were still razor-sharp when he bared them. “You’re not going.”“Puck… I’m sorry.” Before I could second-guess myself, I let the crown teleport him away.