We scheduled the attack last-minute, two days later. I knew that whatever spell had been placed on Puck, it wouldn’t last long. Two days was enough for me to figure out how to create the illusions of my friends and how to keep them –– for the following twenty-four hours. Running purely on glamour during that time, I only needed Ash to bring me water, and I was fine.
Kishan stuck close to me while the others went to build up our countering forces. After my nightmare, Ash had chosen a mountain in one of the lesser territories Mab ruled in the mortal world. It made sense, considering Meghan was more likely to seek shelter with the prince she had a crush on than any unknown creature. It went beyond that, I knew, but I had to think like one of them.
“Ready?” the youngest Indian prince asked.
I slipped him the faery ring a nymph gave me what seemed like so long ago. “As I’ll ever be.”
You can do this. The black tiger bounded away, horribly outlined against the wintry, barren land. With the ring, the two of us were as connected as me and Ash, except a certain trickster was not able to overhear our thoughts.
There was a cabin not too far away, once owned by one of the lesser dukes and then by a trod guard. As soon as the unused trod faded away, Mab had called back her guard. I didn’t know the history of the duke, but since nobody ever talked about him or his family, I had a pretty good idea. We decided I could use the cabin as my escape route; no one would ever know I created the portal with the past trod “in place.” For now, I remained in the woods, drawing on the winter chill. Kishan’s shadow flickered in the trees.
“Now,” I breathed, centering myself. The crown burned on my head. I swung into a pine tree, unable to help myself, and watched as the images of my friends materialized. They were ghost-like at first, but they solidified within a few seconds. So did the fake tree that created a root cave for them to nestle into.
The fire that provided them warmth in this atmosphere was all too real. I stared at it longingly, grateful for my Unseelie blood or whatever it was to keep away the chill. The flames hovered just above the snow, the logs they sat on not real, and did nothing to reach me in this perch. I hoped the dormant dryad would help me if I needed her.
On the opposite edge, two silhouettes appeared behind some trees. Lokesh was doing his best to hide himself and Machina while they watched Meghan and Kelsey, shivering in the cold. I tilted my head slightly. Pirate gold eyes locked on me from even farther away. Just like in the dream, I could hear the footsteps approaching, near silent on the snowy ground. I heard someone’s breath hitch as he almost slipped on a patch of ice. The girl beside him broke rank and was quickly swallowed by a wraith. I pulled my awareness back in, focusing on the leaders in front of me with my heart in my throat.
“How long has it been?” Kelsey asked. From here I could hear the fake chatter of her teeth. She threw on several twigs I'd created close to their tree-cave.
Meghan was shivering worse than the chosen human, her Seelie blood not reacting well to the cold. It was all so lifelike. “Ash said he needs to make sure the guard isn’t there before he brings us to the trod.” She reached toward the flames. “We should have brought more clothes.”
“We’ll find some heated stuff after we cross into Tir Na Nog.”
From my perch, I saw the silhouettes move closer together, as though they were whispering something. I strained to catch their words, which couldn’t be heard through Lokesh’s cloaking. Machina stepped from the shadows. Both my friends leaped to their feet, weapons drawn. The blades were lit inside the illusion with my personal fire.
“Please relax, girls. We haven’t come to hurt you.” At his words, Lokesh also came into view. “Why wait for an Unseelie Prince?” Machina continued tauntingly. “For all you know, he could be gathering a patrol to take you in to Mab herself.”
Steadfast as the real Meghan, my illusion snapped, “Ash would never do that.” My head felt heavy from the crown’s magic, but I had grown used to it from my day-long practice.
Lokesh turned when one of his wraiths yanked something from the forest. A writhing, snarling tiger bit at the shadow that held him. Kelsey gasped. “Where are the other tigers?” Lokesh asked sweetly. “Surely that fool of a prince wouldn’t leave you with only one protector.” The black brute growled at his words.
Kishan? I called tentatively.
A different kind of shadow moved, about in the same area I saw him before. Are you okay? I can’t see your illusion anymore, and I couldn’t see you once the crown cloaked you anyway. I hesitated. Maybe we should get you out of there now, Starr, he said uneasily. If they’re playing you, they know you’re there.
Or they don’t know, and they’re trying to play Kelsey and Meghan.
The sound of battle erupted all around us. Lokesh and Machina smiled at each other. The image of Kishan disappeared. They lunged for the blondes, passing right through the illusion. I mentally cursed and jumped into the nearest tree. Running from branch to branch, I dropped to the ground when I felt my cloaking wear off. A shout followed after me, but I took off like a shot.
A wall of fire stopped them from immediately coming toward me. Kishan thundered out of the barren forest. Glamour poured off me in waves, and he grew. Where he usually reached my hip, he now touched my chest. I hopped onto his broader back, lending him all the strength I had so his longer legs could run that much faster. The leaders were sucking my energy away. This was real, I reminded myself, eyesight blurring for a moment. It was a fight we had to win, or else we might never gain the upper hand.
Kishan slammed into a wall of the leaders’ creation as well, yet I radiated enough heat from a held-back fire that he plowed right through it. Flames licked at his tail without burning him, and I felt their awesome heat on my back. All the two of us needed to do was get the hell out of this area.
Where is it? he asked, panting in his mind-voice but not in truth.
I pulled him up short. “Behind them.”
In front of us, shadows writhed around the cabin that was our safe house. They hadn’t gotten past the wards Ash and I put up, but it was clear how hard they were trying. I cast out my senses as discretely as I could, allowing Kishan to feel what I did while watching our backs. The spells were close to falling.
They want into Tir Na Nog, he mused with sudden realization.
Replaying the illusion in my mind, I mentally smacked myself. Of course Lokesh and Machina would have done their research around this area once they heard my friends were here. Although they might not have expected the trap –– because I could feel the great amount of death their side was taking while mine lived –– they would have known something about the expired trod. The two of them together might even have enough power to revive it, something similar to my creation of a portal.
Foreboding surged through me. White-hot flames erupted in the throng of darkness without my command. Kishan backed away from the smell of burning decay, uncharacteristically solemn.
Ash, if you can hear me, get your ass into the Unseelie Court. Machina is setting to ambush Tir Na Nog once he’s tied up loose ends with us. Part of that could be a lie for all I knew. There was a sense of urgency on his end of my telepathic call, and I recognized the disorienting feeling of transporting without a solid trod. Kelsey must have been nearby and quickly helped out.
“Forget the cabin!” Machina shouted. His voice pounded in my eardrums; I could only imagine how the others felt, with my senses expanded. “The warp is loose!”
They called me a warp? That was actually kind of insulting.
My eyesight blurred for a fraction of a second as Kishan pressed harder. The order had revived those milling around the ancient building, and we were in serious trouble. I leaned forward, ready to become deadweight on his back, except for how unfair that would be. Instead I shot out magic in every direction. Illusions I could maintain for ultra-extended periods of time. Different styles of power like this, apparently not so much.
What threw me off-balance both literally and mentally was a couple of tremors along the ground. Kishan roared after I heard some of our people being lost to the fissure that had appeared somewhere nearby. My heart almost stopped beating at the answer of another tiger.
I knew Ren’s powerful roars. That was nothing like them.
“Starr!” Lokesh called in a singsong voice. “You and your friend can’t outrun us. If anything, you should have learned that by now!”
Do you feel that? Kishan inquired suddenly.
“The glamour?” It was a mix of Winter and Summer charms, that much I could tell. And it was close.
Skidding in order to make the sharp turn, Kishan righted himself and drew on my energy yet again. I gave it to him readily, his long legs eating up the distance of this barren mountain. I had no clue how long he’d been running, yet I felt as if my muscles had been the ones supporting us the whole trek. Another roar shook the earth in response to a third quake.
As it turned out, the source of power came from a weak link between the Unseelie Court and our mortal world. A golden tabby erupted from the trees, slamming into the two of us. I plunged through the portal that shouldn’t have existed. My amulet burned against my chest, and as the brutes were torn from me, I had the overwhelming fear that one or both of them would be stuck like this. Unknown charms –– because there was no way someone we knew had done something so monumental –– were not meant to be touched, let alone passed through. I clutched at my pendant.Please let one of their curses break.