The stillness of the wyldwood unnerved me. Knights vanished into the thick woods, remaining at the edges of a meadow I knew fairly well. Not too far away, the meadow rose into a rocky, mountainous terrain that was decidedly not part of the wyldwood. It was in those mountains that I’d bargained my life; I felt myself drawn to them, to the potential unwittingly stashed there by the spell.
Everything moving around us was merely faeries getting into position. Hunters and Unseelie fanned nearly everywhere, relatively hidden. Only a select few Summer sidhe were with us as well, curtesy of Oberon not trusting his wife any more than I did.
It was when a shadow fell across the meadow that I realized why the mountains called me. It was time for a rematch.
Get me to those outcroppings, I ordered my friends, staring in the direction of the base of the mountains. A growl sounded from Puck’s hiding space, and I saw just enough of Ash to notice his head dip slightly. I scanned the meadow again. More shadows seemed to darken the land, although they were not corporeal beings like the one that had captured me so long ago.
Kishan was closest to me, besides Puck and Ash. “Ren and Meghan are in charge, if the need arises,” I mumbled under my breath. A slowly-stirring breeze carried my words to him. I could only hope he understood as I left my post.
Both fey materialized from the forest to crouch beside me. If we were lucky, we would dodge most of the fighting here, and take the battle onto the rocks. There was a cliff hidden nearby that I very much would have liked to throw dozens of creatures from.
War cries echoed through the air. Gremlins and other short Iron fey launched from the trees to meet Lokesh’s first wave. My muscles tensed under my gear. The clash of blades announced the fighting beyond those first waves. I darted to my feet.
A wraith rose in front of me. My sword split right through it.
Lightning crackled in the darkening sky. Wind lashed at another creature aiming for me. Two more met death at the ends of my blades.
“What’s a human doing out here?” some creature leered. It choked on its own blood a few seconds later, without an answer.
Hail began to plummet from nothingness. I whipped a dagger at the thing’s partner. It lived long enough to hear: “I’m not a human.”
Flames licked through the rising maelstrom. With a thought, I threw a knife toward Ash. It stuck in the back of his opponent. He plunged forward. A glowing sword ran down some being with wings.
We had barely made a dent in getting to those mountains. Ash disappeared once more into the fray. Arrows carved the air around me.
Protected by my blades, I let myself look around for a moment. Puck was ahead of us both, a circle of carnage and blood around him. Something tickled the edges of my mind.
It was gone in the next instant. I yanked my sword out of a lower witch that attacked.
The cloak wrapped around my knees. Without thinking, I rolled to the right. A spear poked out of the ground where I had been standing. Four knives rocketed from my belt.
“Starr,” a new beast growled. I whirled on my heel. The tip of my left blade dripped blood. The Wolf’s eyes seemed to glow. “Come on.”
In several heartbeats, he had dodged around the outskirts of the battle, me on his back. I slid down gratefully. “May we meet again,” I said over my shoulder, already running toward the base of the rocks. A resonating howl answered me as he continued his fight.
You are not mortal, I told myself. Embers sparked inside me. I pushed my legs harder. You never were.
“That’s far enough, don’t you think?”
I stopped dead in my tracks by no feat of my own. Lokesh smiled wickedly at me. Heat scorched my veins. “Can’t fight me without an unfair advantage?” I demanded. My right hand was trapped, close enough to the hilt of a dagger.
“You have killed an ally more ancient than me, and a queen you have trained is about to kill another.” He shook his head. “I’m fine standing here.”
Power surged through me. “I’m not.” I lunged forward, out of his spell.
The sorcerer met my sword with a polearm of his own. Shadows swirled around us. Then a glow of ice-blue cut through the dark. I slammed the twin blade into his polearm. He jerked back from the distraction Ash had brought.
You can continue to be the most powerful sorcerer in the world, I had once said. I'd lied.
Lokesh launched toward me. I met him head-on, both swords in an X. His blow knocked me back several steps, but did not knock me down. I lifted one blade and aimed for his calf.
Sticky black blood welled beneath my hit. He whipped the polearm to parry my next blow. Everything was dark, dark, dark.
The would-be hit vibrated my whole arm as I blocked. Lokesh thrust the polearm downward. I managed to hold my grip, hand going numb. I leaned my good sword hand down. Tip pressed to the ground, I balanced myself into the blade. He dodged my kick, just barely.
A sentient dagger landed in his shoulder. He grunted in pain. I had to flip backward to avoid his retaliation.
“Enough of this.” He tore the knife from his joint. Blood spurted from the wound, unable to close because of my own power. “I should have killed you the first time. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Inky black tendrils wrapped around my limbs. I bucked against them, then went still as Lokesh’s hand gripped my neck. It was surer now than it had been before. Determination and fear warred inside me. It was the sudden stillness of the fight around us that amplified that fear. Only this time, it was just Puck and Ash who bore witness.
“I think it’s time to set things right, don’t you?” the sorcerer asked my boys. In the blink of an eye, tendrils engulfed them, too. “No more bargains.”
My crown and my pendant both began to pulse with heat. They burned in time with my heartbeat. I coughed around Lokesh’s heavy grasp. “I lied to you about one thing,” I rasped. My saving grace. “You are not the most powerful, and you never have been.” I slitted my eyes partially shut in concentration. “You wanted Kelsey’s power for that very reason.”
“Shut up.” His grip tightened. A strangled noise came from Puck’s direction.
“Except you never had the right girl,” I continued, voice nothing more than a gasp. “You never thought I could…”
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe, but it was too late. Light burst from the pendant under his hand. Lokesh reared back in shock, and the weight of the crown disappeared from my head. Puck’s eyes were glowing an almost blinding golden-green. Ash dropped gracefully to his feet. Still held by tendrils, I bucked against the spell that trapped me.
When Lokesh charged for Puck, I shouted around my bruised throat, “Let him be restored!”
Chaos broke loose.
Goodfellow was a blur as he tackled Lokesh mid-lunge. An aura of light followed his every move, his full abilities more than enough at his disposal. The caws of ravens echoed from the meadow below us. I nearly collapsed on the rocks, but Ash was abruptly there. Fire erupted in the air around us. The ground shook at our feet.
Silver flashed as Puck’s daggers became a deadly whirlwind. Blood and burns appeared on Lokesh seemingly out of nowhere. The sorcerer dropped his polearm when the wood splintered into six pieces.
Things targeted me and Ash. He did not even have to retrieve his fallen sword. Lightning struck down any creature that came near us.
Ravens darted around the bolts, diving for anything my glamour might have missed. I leaned heavily against Ash. Warmth coated the lower half of my ribcage, and it had nothing to do with the flames.
As if he knew, Ash’s Winter glamour started to flow.
Time seemed to stand still, all at once. Sparks flickered and died between Lokesh’s curse-casting fingers. The Robin Goodfellow who was summed up by pranks gone wrong glared down at the fallen sorcerer, twin daggers gleaming with blood and ichor. “You’re right,” the Seelie jester growled, leveling his blades. “You should have killed us when you had the chance.”
Even after all the carnage I had dealt, I closed my eyes at the sight of a long dagger slicing through the sorcerer’s neck. Lokesh’s head hit the mountain rocks with a sickening thud. Different heat pressed at my cheeks.
Through my sudden need to manipulate opponents' minds, I looked to find Puck standing before us. Glimpses of my trickster shone beneath the beast he’d allowed himself to be, one last time. Ash shifted his grip ever so slightly on me.
“If you say you’re fine, you’re lying,” Goodfellow remarked, a faint smirk at his lips.
Breathing was becoming an issue. My ribs ached with even the thought of it. Before I could say anything, Puck and Ash exchanged a look over my head. An icy hand fell across the wound I did not remember getting. The former prince’s fingers linked with Puck’s as flames met with the chill. I hissed in agony. Forcing skin to knit together again was one thing; bones were apparently much harder to heal.
The pain subsided after a minute or two. My hiss of complaint turned into a sigh of relief. Ash and Puck moved away from me, but only enough to allow some semblance of personal space.
My gaze found Lokesh’s body, the corpse deteriorating fast, as if even the mountain no longer wanted it. “He and Ferrum are both gone,” I said dubiously. “It doesn’t seem real.”
“Is Machina dead?” Ash asked, looking toward the meadow. Everything had gone quiet. I continued reaching for whoever was left.
“Yes.” Meghan mounted one of the outcroppings. Her blonde hair was streaked with dirt and blood, grime marring her face. “He won’t bother anyone any longer.”
Ash went to my old friend in a few long strides. Their embrace was something that promised me this was ours, this was reality. I dipped my head at Ren and Kishan as they joined us. They were both cut in various places. Since the Indian princes looked none the worse for wear overall, I guessed those marks were only flesh wounds. Kelsey climbed up, too, her features shadowed. The three of them took in the death splayed across the rocks solemnly, but when their eyes found mine, the trio all visibly brightened. Meghan and Ash turned to face me. My heart ached at the sight of all of them, at the partnership that was nearly tangible. We’d survived.
Fingers ghosted across my back. “We should go see the others,” Puck murmured. He was focused on the way our friends had come up, the path that led to the meadow.
I nodded once.
At the bottom of the rocks, the Wolf, Oberon, and Mab had gathered, their forces fanning out behind them. Healers weaved in and out of the warriors. The stench of blood and lost power was almost overwhelming, and breathing through my mouth only made it worse.
“Titania isn’t here,” Puck murmured, eyeing the Hunters in particular. “Let’s hope music doesn’t start playing.”
Despite what had happened since then, I winced. Ash shot Puck a glare, even though I knew he knew nothing about it. “Mab,” I greeted instead, moving away from the two of them.
“Pity this war raged on for so long,” the Unseelie Queen commented, flicking grime from her face. Icicles glittered in her black hair. “That was quite the battle, Starr. Your time has finally come full circle.”
Oberon emitted a breath that may or may not have been a laugh. “And now the circle begins anew,” he added. If the way he glanced at his former jester meant anything, it was testament to striking our own paths again.
“There is one thing I don’t understand…”
“No Seelie forces will attack you or yours in oncoming years unless properly provoked, as dictated by faery law,” the Erlking interjected before I could even get the words out. “Titania will not defy what the earth and Faery has agreed on today. Both lands would retaliate harshly if she did.”
The Wolf’s gaze was too heavy on me. I excused myself from the monarchs’ attention. Ren and Kishan slipped in easily, their own royal heritage appearing in their mannerisms. “You forfeited the power that made you a queen once,” came his rumbling voice. I raised one eyebrow quizzically. “You do realize your crown did not just vanish, old friend.”
“If you have a point to make, try to hurry.” I wanted to check on the rest of my important allies and go home. A month-long nap was calling my name.
His left ear twitched acknowledgement. “Had you not been wearing your crown, your talisman would not have been enough to keep you on this plane. Time would have folded against you, and either killed you outright or made you vanish like that headpiece.” I snapped to attention. He bowed his head the tiniest bit. “May we meet again,” he echoed from earlier.
I watched him leave in the wake of the other Hunters. Oberon left, too, with the dozen Seelie knights who had helped on his heels. Ash and Meghan were with Mab, but Rowan and Sage were still missing. From my direct line of sight, at least.
“Well, if it isn’t the amazing Starr.” Some of the weight slid from my shoulders at his voice. I spun on my heel to face Rowan. The blue depths were alive with triumph. “Nice to see you looking like a noble for once.”
Smirking, I gestured to his bloodstained armor. “I can’t believe that isn’t your usual outfit. It suits you.” For a heartbeat, neither one of us backed down from our sarcastic remarks. Then I laughed and gripped his forearm traditionally. “I couldn’t have won without some very powerful fey on my side.” I bit my tongue around the words Thank you. In another time, this jerk might have been a calamity to himself and to my dark faery. Yet I couldn’t curse him off anymore, not in this life.
“You’re welcome,” he responded, knowing what I intended to say. “And Goodfellow––” Ever present at my side, Puck folded his arms across his chest. Rowan gave a faint, hollow grin. “Try not to get into any trouble in the next few millennia, okay?”
At the same time I swallowed my laugh, my trickster visibly relaxed. “It was good to have you on my side, Rowan.” The Ice Prince bowed extravagantly in farewell. When he was gone, Puck raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t get how he’s survived this long.”
“I could say the same for you.” Emerald depths focused on me immediately. Devilish, I smiled and pecked his cheek. “Kidding.” Another sidhe was walking toward us. For him, I covered the distance between us and held him tightly. “I saw you die, earlier,” I said into his chest, the secret no longer shackling me. “Thank God you had some backup.” My entire inner guard, safe from something that had haunted us for centuries. It didn’t seem real.
Sage returned my hug for a minute. We both pulled away at the same time. “I’m glad you told me this after the fact,” he replied solemnly. “I would’ve taken death as an honor, but actually seeing the victory cannot compare.” His forefinger pressed against my chin carefully, the rest of his hand curled away from my neck. He tilted my face upward as if examining something. “It’s good to see you… Wait. What is this thing on your face, anyway? Are you actually smiling?” he teased.
So was he, though. I laughed in answer before putting some distance between us. Puck shadowed me at a respectful distance, his centuries-old normal completely foreign to me. A quick glance back at him had him returning directly to my shoulder, close enough our arms brushed every few steps.
Next, I stood in front of Mab’s Unseelie, looking at the sidhe and servants who had fought more for revenge than for us. Sage and Rowan stood at the front of the troops, the ice wreaths shining on their heads from the sunlight. I faced Mab once again.
“As long as it remains in my ability to do so, I promise to protect today’s survivors from any other threats such as Lokesh or Machina.” Our casualties still existed, although I forced myself not to think about them. After the manipulation I had done on not time, but minds, I surprised myself in adding: “No one will ever challenge our worlds like this if I can stop them.”
Her expression was frosty but pleased. “We will hold you to that promise, Queen of Fate.” With that, she called for her warriors to leave.
All three Winter Princes stayed with me. Meghan hadn’t let go of Ash’s hand throughout this entire farewell process; Kishan and Ren hadn’t stopped flanking Kelsey on either side. Rowan looked as if he wanted to joke about the blondes but wisely kept his mouth shut. Sage merely watched me for something else to come.
Lifetimes ago, Ren and Kishan would not have been here. I closed the distance between me and the trio, pulling Kelsey to me first. “You’re in charge of your own life now,” I murmured, thinking about the red tattoos Durga had left on her wrists. About Ky and how close they'd once been friends.
“You always were the best,” she responded softly.
Ren and I only gripped forearms. “I can’t believe we used to hate being in the same room.”
“I can’t believe I saved your ass,” I teased. Ren chuckled; when he dropped my hand, his fingers entwined with Kelsey’s. Pirate gold eyes caught the movement, but Kishan engulfed me in a hug of his own a second later. I smiled against his torn shirt. “You know, I might need you around, just to have a friend.”
Pulling away, he nodded once. Even standing with Kelsey and Ren once more, there was space between him and the couple I could not have foreseen. I went to the Unseelie brothers after, my skin crawling with a semi-forgotten hatred for touch. I ignored it and held out a sword to the princes, tip brushing the ground. Sage gripped the hilt just above my hand, Rowan just below. “What’s our allegiance to you now?” Sage asked, because we had already kind of said our goodbyes.
“I do need liaisons in each court, you know.” I grinned at Rowan mischievously. “And I think Titania needs to see Thornguards at every party she hosts from here on out.”
Both of them dipped their heads, releasing my blade. I sheathed it. Sage was Mab’s heir, much as neither one of them liked to think of it. At least now he would report back to me and have some freedoms. And I knew Rowan would have fun in Arcadia, the replacement for a certain trickster who was never going back. Even Oberon would be okay with a new tormentor for Titania.
Meghan let go of Ash long enough to squeeze me tight like a lifeline. I laughed and pushed her gently off. “I hope you realize the Iron Kingdom doesn’t have anyone to fill the throne.” I was still smiling when my gaze flicked to the crown she wore. Slightly afraid of what might have happened once, I swallowed that fear with my gratitude of what took place in its stead. “I think you’d make a good queen, Meg. You already have a brooding knight on your side.”
“An entire court is not something I’m ready to control,” she observed quietly, another thought flickering across her face.
For once, Ash gave a full, genuine smile. “Do you really think Starr would leave her inner guard to be poisoned by something as simple as iron?” he assured her, knowing fully well what else I had already changed since the battle ended.
“Besides,” I continued, “it’s a good thing the Iron fey need to figure out how to rebuild their society. Gives you time to figure out what you need to do as queen.”
My old friend hesitated a beat before nodding. My grin from talking to Rowan widened. As I turned away from them, Ash tucked Meghan into his side and kissed her temple. Trods that shouldn’t have existed opened up, one by one. The entirety of my inner guard, sans one, headed through to start a future I still couldn’t believe we had.
Every inch the hunter/trickster he had been, Puck’s hair was fiery red, jewel-green eyes glowing with inner flame. “And what are we going to do now, little warrior? Having a life outside of a court is new to me.”
“You’re the one who’s traveled the world before,” I answered immediately. He draped his arm around my shoulders and kissed the crown of my hair. Neither one of us mentioned the fact I could have died again today, if not for the conduit he hated so much. Love and power surged through me. “You tell me where we’re going next.”He didn’t, simply led the way through a portal in proud silence. The meadow and the mountains went up in golden flames behind us.