“It’s time to wake up, Starr.”
I blinked open my eyes. The lights stung. No sooner had I thought it than they dimmed to a more comfortable setting. “Why?” I croaked out. Mercurial depths stared worriedly at me. There was something familiar about his black hair and brooding expression; a name drifted slowly into my head. “Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn.” My voice came out raspier than I would’ve liked.
Relief flickered in those unearthly eyes. “You remember.”
“Not enough,” I confessed. “I met you, and Meghan, and Kelsey, but––” I hesitated. “You guys introduced me to Kishan and Dhiren. Ky was the name of a wraith we were fighting with…” I yelped at the pain that spiked through me.
Ash pressed a cold hand against my forehead. “Don’t try too hard. You’re recovering, but the curse is still strong.” I looked up at him pleadingly. “I won’t risk saying something that will make you pass out. Ky already took care of that for me.” There was a bitter edge to his tone. “Do you know Robin Goodfellow at all?” he asked instead.
Thinking hurt. “He was a trickster and your best friend until he killed the girl you loved. After that, you stopped meeting to hunt with him. His name carries on to that golden tabby.” I stopped dead in my train of thought. That part was more painful. “Wait.”
“Multiple curses were made,” was his only response.
Frustrated that he wouldn’t answer me completely, I closed my eyes once more and let his soothing chill flow into my feverish limbs. Whatever had happened at the circus remained a confusing blur to my ravaged memory. At least I had some recovery. But what took place that stole those memories from me? There had to be some good ones in there, because at the moment, all I could recall was terror, concern, and a suicidal determination.
“Please tell me what happened,” I whispered. His expression was a stoic mask. “Ash, you don’t shut yourself off from me unless you want to keep a secret. Trust me, you’ll know when I want you to stop.”
My dark faery sighed. “Do you know why I don’t want you hurt again?” he asked instead.
A flare of pain drummed against my temples. “Honestly, I don’t feel this close to you now. I don’t know why things have changed, but you were like my older brother once. And you had two older brothers.” I inhaled sharply as something pressed at my temples. “Sage and Rowan,” I named through gritted teeth. “Rowan you thought was a traitor until he helped me out, before the ambush, and Sage loved me as much as you did.” It took all of my effort to not think about the ambush I'd mentioned. I knew nothing about it, which meant it was likely to send me into a coma.
“Exactly. You’re my family.” Ash had another reason. I could see the deception in his silver gaze as he focused on something in the distance. “If you want me to keep going with the story, you’ll ignore the pain until it’s too late and your body crashes. I won’t forgive myself if I can’t stop in time.”
I pushed myself into a sitting position. He dropped his hand. I felt better now that I wasn’t focusing on things that were blocked from me. “Where are we, anyway?”
“We needed a safe place. Because of what happened, in this life, all three of us princes live in Tir Na Nog.” I didn’t understand how the Unseelie would live anywhere but their icy homeland, but at least I recalled Tir Na Nog.
Humans and Summer fey couldn’t tolerate the cold of the Unseelie Court. Only those with Winter blood could. I glanced over at the fireplace, where the blue/white flames were the only source of light so that the pain in my eyes subsided. It flickered at my attention. I wondered briefly how I was able to control it without any glamour of my own. One thing I knew definitely, memory or no, was that I wasn’t fey.
Ash watched me warily, concerned that I would freeze or fall when I got to my feet and left the blanket on his comfy mattress. I looked down at the black clothes keeping me warm. Combat-hunting boots, if they could even be called that; riding style pants that were actually lighter than sweatpants; and a tee that had sleeves barely touching my elbows. I should have known I was keeping myself warm as if I were truly Unseelie. Walking the length of the room and blatantly ignoring the thorn that pierced my heart for some reason, I smiled hollowly at Ash.
“If you remember your way around a blade, I’ll give your swords back,” he offered, straightening to his full height.
I eyed the sheaths he removed from his closet. They were silver metal at first glance, but with all the faeries I’d probably been around in the past, there was iron in them, too. I used to be the strongest fighter we had with that advantage on top of my skills. “I did some martial arts when I was younger, I think.”
Lifting the corner of his mouth in a tiny grin, Ash held both twin blades to me with his right hand. “Take them. I’m pretty sure you’ll know.” He had a point. This was something that was very important to who I was.
When the hilts were in either hand, everything having to do with fighting flowed back to me. I straightened at the rush of power it brought.
“Now I don’t have to worry about you being vulnerable here.” A smile tugged at his lips, tiny and faint. He took out a cloak next. Clipping the chain at my shoulder, he tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “You are a queen, Starr, and I ache to think you can’t see it.” He had told Ky to stay away from his queen. I leaned into the gentle touch of his palm on my cheek. “Are you ready to face Mab yet?”
I pulled up the hood of the cloak. It smelled like Arcadia, the home of the Summer Court. A lump formed in my throat. “I never knew Puck,” I began uncertainly, and then hesitated when Ash’s expression closed from me. “What happened to get him cursed?” I tucked my left arm under my cloak to hook the weapons belt on.
“Lokesh.” He hesitated. Shock flickered in his eyes when I did not react. “He’s the source of the curse on our tigers. Puck was cast out of the Seelie Court temporarily for going against Oberon’s orders for a girl. He decided he could make up his past mistake to me by joining forces with us. When you were cursed, so were Ren and Kishan. But Puck defended me and took my place.”
There was a swift knock on the door, followed by a wild-haired sidhe sticking his head in uninvited. The ice in his blue eyes triggered a small rush of memories without a migraine. “Starr,” he greeted. Ash stiffened as he stepped into the room. “You’re awake.”
“Hello, Rowan.” I forced my tone to stay cool despite the burn of emotion on the Winter Prince’s face.
Ash tilted his head slightly. “Has Sage returned?” He radiated a murderous protection. Rowan couldn’t betray us no matter how hard he tried. I knew that from the past.
“In the throne room with Mab,” his brother answered. “They sent me to check on you both.”
Something in me drew closer to Ash’s dresser. I opened the top drawer and removed its false bottom. The snake bracelet it revealed matched one that Kelsey no longer had –– hers was gold, the one here mine. Like everything I preferred, this one was platinum. When the bracelet was made, silver metals hadn’t been able to be sharpened and melded at the same time. Platinum was stronger and allowed me to disguise a dagger in its chain-length body. Kelsey’s was no more than ornamentation. I tried to recall what Meghan had to help her, yet my mind refused to go that far. I didn’t stress over it, knowing I might need a trigger for that as well as everything else.
“Alright,” I conceded once the bracelet was a familiar weight on my wrist. “I’m ready now.”
Going through unfamiliar hallways, I was glad to be flanked by the sidhe on either side. Some faeries recognized me from before, not knowing that I’d lost all my knowledge of this place. Others leered at me, knowing fully well what happened. I stuck closer to Ash than Rowan out of habit.
When I noted there were several who ran away from us, I glanced up at Ash. “Why are they so afraid?”
“The three of us have levels of power that they can’t attain. They fear what our tempers could do to our glamour and, in turn, to them.” His hand lifted ever so slightly, anticipating something.
I merely shivered. “I have glamour?” I pressed.
A muscle jumped in his cheek. “You did.” His hand dropped back to his side.
I was disappointed that I didn’t still, but I also wasn’t curled up in a fetal position like he feared I would be at the comment. Oh well; I would take what I could get.
We stopped outside ornate wooden doors that had been painted black. I stared at them for at least a minute before shaking my head. Ash sighed. Rowan moved forward to open them without acknowledging his own disappointment. I guessed I had been here more than once, in front of these very doors, yet I could not remember. I lowered my gaze to the crystalline floor. There was something out there that I needed my memories for.
“Of course he isn’t––” Sage broke off when we entered the throne room. Mab leaned back on her icy throne slightly, whatever argument stilled between them at our presence. Like his brothers, Sage had black hair, except his was cropped a bit shorter. Forest-green eyes drank in the sight of me. I pointedly ignored the Unseelie Queen, offering the eldest prince a small smile. He took a hesitant step toward me, clearly not done with his mother. “God, Starr…”
“Nice to see you, too,” I teased. Sage chuckled, but his features were shadowed with the verbal fight I interrupted. I schooled my expression into one of neutrality when I met those unfathomable depths that could freeze a man to death. I knew enough not to be sassy, but the words slipped out anyway. “What, no welcoming party for yours truly?”
Mab smiled darkly. “Bold words for a human girl,” she replied in greeting.
I threw back my shoulders. “I proved once that I wasn’t human. What makes you think that’s changed?” Okay, so everything changed. She didn’t need to know how badly that affected me.
“You’re lacking your inner guard, for one,” the queen reminded me. I fought the urge to flinch as something stabbed my skull. “And unless my eyes deceived me as well as all of my Court, you were carried into this palace. Any incapacitated human would have been unconscious for over a day, which you have.”
Ash shifted almost imperceptibly on his feet. “It’s fine,” I whispered for his ears only. Raising my voice, I challenged, “Any human would have frozen to death without tons of fur coats here, especially at the heart of your death trap.”
“You,” Mab snapped. Ice crept along the ground, reaching toward me. Sage looked ready to jump in front of me, and Rowan was glaring at his mother.
I merely grinned. Her glamour, no pun intended, froze before it could touch me. “I’m not the one you should waste your energy on.” With that, I whirled and stalked out the door.
The ground shook. After roughly twenty seconds, all three princes followed swiftly in my wake. A whirlwind of frost and snow slammed the elaborate doors shut. I took a deep breath against the panic rising in my throat. Sage finally hugged me close.
“You’re an idiot,” he breathed, tucking my head under his chin. “A beautiful, powerful, crazy idiot.”
Rowan coughed. I turned in Sage's embrace to face him. “The tigers are probably waiting for you. Mab wasn’t lying when she charged you with being out for a day.” He glanced back the way we’d come. “You need to get away from here before she changes her mind and kills you.”
“Not without you three,” I retorted.
The princes exchanged grave looks. Sage stepped away from me carefully. “We can’t leave her unless she releases us from our duties in court,” he informed me gently. I felt that it should have been a reminder, not news. “Ash can, since he’s ignored court life for as long as he’s been alive. But Rowan and I must stay. And even our little brother will return eventually.” I locked eyes with pure mercury. Ash did not want his brothers left behind, either. “Get out of Tir Na Nog before she sets a bounty on your head. Maybe you can find something in Arcadia,” Sage suggested. Uncertainty rang in his words, meaning that was simply a ploy to get me away.
I sighed. “Fine.” Ash fell in at my right shoulder as I headed in the direction opposite to his brothers. Something about the Seelie Court had a shiver creeping up my spine. Considering they held Summer glamour in Arcadia, like Winter in the Unseelie territory, I did not understand the chill that froze my veins. “Arcadia was where Puck was from, right?” When Ash refused to respond, I had my answer.
“We’re not going to Arcadia,” he said finally, keeping pace with me. “I need to show you something important elsewhere.”
Despite not trusting anyone in my mundane life, I followed Ash without question. He led the way through the labyrinthine forests of the–– the wyldwood. As we plunged deeper into the never-ending dusk light, I had to remind myself that the Deep Wyld was even more of a jungle than this woodland. And that I was not alright enough yet to face down the monsters lurking in there.
Suddenly the dreary path opened into a sunlit clearing. At least, compared to the rest of the wyldwood, it was sunlit. My jaw went slack at the sight of the sprawling manor house nestled in the trees. I couldn’t bring myself to tear my gaze away from it to look at Ash. “What is this place?” I whispered hoarsely, awestruck. There was something familiar here; there had to be. ...Why did I feel so empty, then?
“It was once a training ground for you. The legend for this manor is so old that many faeries have forgotten it even exists. But Puck and I would visit every so often, usually at different times, to check on it all. It was the home of an extremely close friend.”
I swallowed past the lump that had formed in my throat. “Did I ever know this?” Know her? remained silent.
Ash stepped out of the shade of the trees. “No. When we trained here, all you knew was that Puck and I shared a connection to this place. You never met its inhabitants or heard its story of abandonment, even though Puck insisted you learn all you could.”
“You actually overruled one of his decisions?” I asked.
There was the hint of a chuckle in his sharp exhale. At least he was opening up a bit to me. “No. He forgot he wanted to tell you, incidentally, and you never had any reason to think about it.” I trailed after him, ignoring the slap of protective magic on my skin beyond the trees. “It’s actually what we’ve kept here that I want you to see, not the house itself.” He snaked an arm around me.
“House?” I grumbled just loudly enough for him to hear. “It’s a freaking mansion.” Ash turned his face away, probably biting back one of his rare smiles. I almost jerked as that came to me. “Wait.” I stopped about a yard from the front door, reaching for my head. Pain blossomed around the bridge of my nose before vanishing. I sighed, “Never mind.”
My dark faery shook his head. “You can’t expect it to come all at once.” It sounded like he directed it at himself as well.
Inside the manor was another wall of wards. I once more ignored the protective magic that pulled at me. Ash released me in the main hallway. “I have to get it first. Feel free to look around if you think it’ll trigger anything, but be careful touching stuff. The owners of this manor liked hidden traps and secret passages.” He headed up the stairs. I expected them to creak, but they had been taken care of well enough in the past to be silent now.
I headed instinctively for the kitchen at the back of the house. It held no more food, probably cleaned out long before this visit, and no traces of modern technology. Iron was poisonous to faeries. I had to remember that in the future, since I clearly forgot it once already.
“Starr?” Ash found me a few minutes later in front of the mantle in the living room, staring at a painting that was vaguely familiar. He tilted his head ever so slightly. “Do you know who they were?”
“Well, you haven’t changed much.” I flashed a tentative smile. Mercury shone with suppressed laughter. Both of us sobered equally quickly. “That’s the girl you lost, and her brother next to her. And… that’s Puck.” I hated the way my voice broke. I didn’t know who the redhead actually was, but seeing him depicted safely with the three others made my heart ache. “I wish I knew him.”
The prince slipped something around my neck. An animalistic growl rumbled in my chest. “Sorry, I didn’t think about your neck problem.” I had no idea why, but I had always hated people near it. I swallowed the growl. On the cord was an intricate charm in the shape of a rune. That much I knew. Puzzling the rest out started to hurt. Ash squeezed my shoulder in reassurance. “A very good friend and fantastic protector made that for you. When we first found the threats on your life, he was the first to investigate. Unfortunately, he was defeated in battle.” I wanted to look at the charm, but I kind of recognized the picture now. It was the hunter I had seen in Oregon, in the vision.
Looking down at the amulet, I watched in fascination as it melded with my pendant. Power flooded my veins. “Where are the tigers?” I had an idea. More than likely a dangerous idea, but I would do anything for them.
“They’re lurking around here somewhere.” Ash tilted his head again. “Why?”
The front door slammed open. I blurted, “Ren and Kishan should be easy to fix. Puck, if it was a selfless act to take the curse, will be harder.” As the cats stalked into the room, I heard the door close behind them. Kelsey and Meghan joined us. “Hi, guys,” I greeted quizzically.
Meg’s gaze flicked to my double pendant. “Do you remember?”
Even considering answering that annoyed me. “Why does everyone know these things but me?” I took that frustration and channeled it through the charm. Familiar golden light burned against the platinum, which I directed toward Kishan first. The black fur seemed to glow from underneath, shedding out. His pirate gold gaze met mine as the light pulled him back onto two legs.
Kishan clenched and unclenched both fists. His smile was dazzling. “Damn it feels good to be back.” He had on silver and black gear that reminded me of what the fey wore in battle.
My migraine had yet to return. I focused the light on Ren. Cobalt depths helped me not to think about how draining this was on me. His snowy pelt disappeared. Both brothers had dark hair, and although Ren stood taller, they held a similar air of respect. I pushed my questions for the princes to the back of my mind and refocused. The golden tabby had waited patiently enough, the only sign of impatience in the way he flicked his tail. In my periphery, Ren’s gold and white outfit held a level of royalty that drove the last of my power. I was draining too fast.
“Be careful, Starr,” Ash murmured, wrapping his arms around me from behind.
I remained steady on my feet without him. The light grew whiter, fierier. My eyes narrowed as I concentrated on containing the quickly-expanding, unpredictable magic. They knew. All of them understood he would be the hardest one to save, and they had the expressions that said I would drain myself before I could ever reach the hunter underneath. I gritted my teeth.
Ash took my weight as I faltered. The words, like some other things I’d told my dark faery, were out of my mouth before I could think. “Puck is mine.”Darkness engulfed me.