The iron daughter, p.38
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       The Iron Daughter, p.38

         Part #2 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 38

 

  My heart pounded. He was so close. I could reach over the table, grab his hand and pull him to safety. “Ash!” I cried, holding out my hand. “Jump, now! Come on, you can fight it. Please…” My voice dropped to a whisper. “Don’t do this. Don’t make us fight you…”

  Ash gazed straight ahead, not moving a muscle, and a sob tore free from my throat. I couldn’t reach him. Ash was lost to us. The cold stranger across the table had taken his place.

  “Well. ” Virus took a step back. “This has grown tiresome. I think it’s time I took what I want from you, my dear. Ash. ” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Kill the princess. Kill them all. ”

  With a flash of blue light, Ash drew his sword and slashed it across the table. It happened so quickly, I didn’t even have time to scream before the icy blade streaked down at my face.

  Puck lunged in front of me and caught the blade with his own, deflecting it with a screech and a flurry of sparks. I stumbled back and Puck grabbed my wrist, dragging me away even as I protested. “Retreat!” he yelled as the Thornguards leaped across the tables with a roar. I looked back and saw Ash jump gracefully onto the table, his terrible blank gaze fastened on me. “Ironhorse, fall back, there are too many of them!”

  With a bellow and a blast of flame, Ironhorse reared up into his true form, breathing fire and lashing out with his hooves. The guards fell back in shock and Ironhorse charged, knocking several aside and clearing a path to the door. As the huge Iron fey thundered past, Puck shoved me toward the exit. “Go!” he shouted, and whirled to block Ash’s sword, slicing down at his back.

  “Ash, stop this!” I cried, but the Winter prince paid me no attention. As the Thornguards closed on us again, Puck snarled a curse and threw a fuzzy black ball into their midst.

  It burst into a maddened grizzly, which reared up with a booming roar, startling everything in the room. As the Thornguards and Ash turned toward this new threat, Puck grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the room.

  “Been saving that, just in case,” he panted, as Ironhorse snorted with appreciation. “Now let’s get out of here. ”

  We ran for the elevator. The hallway seemed longer now, the steel doors deliberately keeping their distance. I looked back once and saw Ash stalking toward us, his sword radiating blue light through the corridor. The icy calm on his face sent a bolt of raw fear through me, and I wrenched my eyes from him.

  Ahead of us, the elevator dinged. A second later, the doors slid open, and a squadron of Thornguards stepped into the hall.

  “Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” Puck exclaimed as we skidded to a halt. As one, the knights drew their swords and marched forward in unison, filling the corridor with the ring of their boots.

  I looked behind us. Ash was advancing steadily as well, his eyes glassy and terrifying.

  A click echoed through the hall and miraculously, one of the side doors swung open.

  “How predictable,” Grimalkin sighed, appearing in the doorway. We gaped at him, and he regarded us with amusement. “I thought you might need a second way out. Why is it always up to me to think of these things?”

  “I would kiss you, cat,” Puck said as we crowded through the doorway, “if we weren’t in such a hurry. Also, the hairballs could be unpleasant. ”

  I slammed the door and leaned against it, gasping as we took in our newest surroundings. A vast white room stretched before us, filled with hundreds upon hundreds of cubicles, creating a labyrinth of aisles. A low hum vibrated in the air, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of tapping keys. Humans sat at desks within each cubicle, dressed in identical white shirts and gray pants, staring glassy-eyed at the monitors as they typed away.

  “Whoa,” Puck muttered, looking around. “Cubicle hell. ”

  Simultaneously, the tapping stopped. Chairs shifted and groaned as every single human in the room stood up and, as one, turned in our direction. And, as one, they opened their mouths and spoke.

  “We see you, Meghan Chase. You will not escape. ”

  If I hadn’t been filled with a hollow, bone-numbing despair, I would’ve been terrified. Puck cursed and pulled out his dagger just as a boom shook the door behind us.

  “Looks like we’re going straight through,” he muttered, narrowing his eyes. “Grimalkin, get moving! Rusty, clear us a path!”

  Grimalkin bounded into the maze, dodging feet and weaving through legs as the hordes of zombie-drones shuffled toward us. Ironhorse pawed the tile, put his head down and charged with a roar. Drones flung themselves at him, punching and clawing, but they bounced off or were thrown aside as the angry Iron fey stampeded through the hall. Puck and I followed in his wake, leaping over downed bodies, dodging the hands that grabbed for us. Someone latched on to my ankle once, but I let out a shriek and kicked him in the face, knocking him back. He fell away clutching my shoe, and I quickly shook the other off, running barefoot through the hall.

  The maze of aisles and cubicles seemed to go on forever. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the mob of zombie heads bobbing above the cubicle walls, following us.

  “Dammit,” Puck snarled, following my gaze, “they’re coming fast. How much farther, cat?”

  “Here,” Grimalkin said, darting around a cubicle. The room finally ended with a stark white wall and a door in the corner, marked with an Exit sign. “The emergency stairs,” he explained as we rushed forward in relief. “This will take us to the street level. Hurry!”

  As we charged the door, Ash stepped out of an aisle next to us, appearing from nowhere. There was no time to think or scream a warning. I threw myself to the side, hitting the wall with a jolt that knocked the wind from my lungs. Time seemed to slow. Puck and Ironhorse bellowed something from far away. A blinding stab of pain shot up my arm. When I grabbed for it, my palm came away slick and wet. For a second, I stared at my fingers, not understanding.

  What happened? Did Ash…do this? Ash cut me?

  Stunned, I looked up into the glassy eyes of the Unseelie prince, his sword raised for the killing blow.

  For just a moment, he hesitated. I saw the sword waver as his arm trembled, a flicker of torment crossing his face. Just a moment, before the blade came flashing down, but it was enough time for Ironhorse to lunge between us, shoving Ash away. I heard the hideous screech of metal as the blade ripped into Ironhorse’s side and he staggered, almost going to his knees. Then Puck was pulling me to my feet, yelling at Ironhorse to get moving, and I was being dragged through the door, screaming at Puck to let me go. Ironhorse lurched to his feet and followed, dripping a thick black substance behind him, his wheezing breaths echoing down the stairwell. As we escaped SciCorp and fled into the streets, the last thing I remembered was watching the door close behind me on the stairs and seeing Ash’s face through the window, a single tear frozen on his cheek.

  PART THREE

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  Choices

  In my dream, he was kneeling in the dead grass beneath a great iron tree, head bent, dark hair hiding his face. Around us, a swirling gray fog blanketed everything beyond a few feet, but I could sense another presence here, a cold, hostile being, watching me with cruel intelligence. I tried to ignore it as I approached the figure beneath the tree. He was shirtless, his pale skin covered in tiny red wounds, like punctures, down his spine and across his shoulders. I blinked. For a moment, I could see the glistening strings of wire sunk into his body, coiling up and vanishing into the fog. I quickened my pace, but with every step I took, the body under the tree moved farther away. I started to run, stumbling and panting, but the fog was drawing him back into its possessive embrace, claiming him for its own. Desperately, I called to him. He raised his head, and the look on his face was beyond despair. It was utter defeat, hopelessness and pain. His lips moved wordlessly, then the fog coiled around him and he was lost.

  I stood there shivering as the mist grew dark, and the other presence hovered at the edge of my cons
ciousness. As the dream faded and I sank into oblivion, I could still see his final words, mouthed to me in desperation, and they chilled me like nothing else. Kill me.

  CONSCIOUSNESS RETURNED slowly. I clawed myself up from sleep, feeling dizzy and confused as the world came into focus. Thankfully, I recognized my surroundings almost immediately. Leanansidhe’s mansion: the foyer, if the huge fireplace was any indication. I lay on one of her comfortable sofas, dressed in slacks and a loose-collared shirt. Someone had taken off the slinky business suit, and of course I’d left my heels back in SciCorp.

  “What happened?” I murmured, struggling to sit up. A blinding flare of pain stabbed up my arm and shoulder, and I gasped.

  “Easy, Princess. ” Suddenly Puck was there, pushing me back down. “You lost a nice amount of blood—it made you woozy. You passed out on our way here. Just sit still for a minute. ”

  I looked at the thick gauze wrapped around my arm and shoulder, a faint pink stain coming through the bandage. It hadn’t even hurt until now. A knot tightened in my stomach as hazy memories pushed their way to the surface. My throat closed up, and I suddenly felt like crying. Pushing those feelings away, I took a shaky breath and focused on the present.

  “Where’s Ironhorse?” I demanded. “And Grim? Did everyone get out okay?”

  “I AM FINE, PRINCESS. ” Ironhorse, back in his more human form, peered over the couch at me. “A LITTLE LESS THAN WHEN WE STARTED, BUT I WILL LIVE. MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT I COULD NOT PROTECT YOU FULLY. ”

  “Really?” The door opened and Leanansidhe entered the room, followed by Grim and two brownies bearing a tray with mugs. “I would have a few more regrets than that, darling. Meghan, dove, try to drink this. It should help. ”

  I struggled to sit up, gritting my teeth against the pain. Puck knelt beside the couch and eased me into a sitting position, then handed me the mug the brownies offered. The hot liquid smelled strongly of herbs, making my eyes water. I took a cautious sip, made a face, and swallowed it down.

  “Kimi and Nelson?” I asked, forcing down more of the stuff. Gah, it was like drinking potpourri in hot water, but I could feel it working as it slid down my throat—a warm drowsiness stealing through my system. “Are they here, too?”