Ash lowered his sword, gazing around warily. Following his gaze, I gave a start. Puck had disappeared, pulling a Grimalkin while we were distracted. Instantly wary, the Winter prince scanned the garden, edging forward with his sword raised. His gaze flicked to me, and I tensed, but he dismissed me almost as quickly, stepping beneath the boughs of a frozen pine.
As Ash stepped under the branches, something leaped out of the snow, howling. The prince dodged, the knife barely missing him, and Puck overbalanced, stumbling forward. With a snarl, Ash drove the point of the sword through Puck’s back and out his chest, pinning him to the ground.
I screamed, but as I did, the body vanished. For a split second, Ash stared at the pierced leaf on his sword tip, then threw himself to the side as something dropped from the tree, dagger flashing in the light.
Puck’s laughter rang out as Ash rolled to his feet, clutching his arm. Blood seeped between pale fingers. “Almost too slow that time, prince,” Puck mocked, balancing the dagger on two fingers. “Really, that’s the oldest trick in the book. I know, ’cause I wrote the book. I’ve got a million more, if you want to keep playing.”
“I’m getting tired of sparring with copies.” Ash straightened, dropping his hand. “I guess honor isn’t as prevalent in the Seelie Court as I thought. Are you the real Puck, or is he too cowardly to face me himself?”
Puck regarded him disdainfully, before shimmering into nothingness. Another Puck stepped out from behind a tree, a nasty grin on his face.
“All right, then, prince,” he said, smirking as he approached, “if that’s what you want, I’ll kill you the old-fashioned way.” And they flew at each other again.
I watched the battle, my heart in my throat, wishing I could do something. I didn’t want either of them to die, but I had no idea how to stop this. Shouting or rushing between them seemed like a really bad idea; one could be distracted, and the other would waste no time finishing him off. A sick despair churned in my stomach. I hadn’t realized Puck was so bloodthirsty, but the mad gleam in his eyes told me he would kill the Winter prince if he could.
They have a history, I realized, watching Ash cut viciously at Puck’s face, barely missing as his opponent ducked. Something happened between them, to make them hate each other. I wonder if they were ever friends.
My skin prickled, an uneasy shiver from more than the cold. Over the clang and screech of metal, I heard something else, a faint rustling, as if a thousand insects were scuttling toward us.
“Run!” Grimalkin’s voice made me jump. Tracks appeared in the snow, rushing toward me, and invisible claws scrabbled against bark as the feline fled up a tree. “Something is coming! Hide, quickly!”
I glanced at Puck and Ash, still locked in combat. The rustling grew louder, accompanied by static and faint, high-pitched laughter. Suddenly, through the trees, hundreds of eyes glowed electric-green in the darkness, surrounding us. Puck and Ash stopped fighting and broke apart, finally aware that something was wrong, but it was too late.
They poured over the ground like a living carpet, appearing from everywhere: small, black-skinned creatures with spindly arms, huge ears, and razor grins that shone blue-white in the darkness. I heard the boys’ cries of shock, and Grimalkin’s yowl of horror as he fled farther up the tree. The creatures spotted me, and I had no time to react. They swarmed me like angry wasps, crawling up my legs, hurling themselves onto my back. I felt claws dig into my skin, my ears filled with loud buzzing and shrieking laughter, and I screamed, thrashing wildly. I couldn’t see, didn’t know which way was up. The weight of their bodies bore me down, and I fell onto a grasping, wriggling mass. Hundreds of hands lifted me up, like ants carrying a grasshopper, and began to cart me away.
“Puck!” I screamed, struggling to free myself. But whenever I rolled away from one group, a dozen more slid in to take their place, bearing me up. I never touched the ground. “Grimalkin! Help!”
Their cries seemed distant and far away. Carried on a buzzing, living mattress, I glided rapidly over the ground and into the waiting darkness.
I DON’T KNOW HOW LONG they carried me. When I struggled, the claws gripping me would dig into my skin, turning the mattress into a bed of needles. I soon ceased thrashing about, and tried to concentrate on where they were taking me. But it was difficult; being carried on my back, the only thing I saw clearly was the sky. I tried to turn my head, but the creatures had their claws sunk into my hair and would yank on it until tears formed in my eyes. I resigned myself to lying still, shivering with cold, waiting to see what would happen. The cold and the gnawing worry drained me…. I allowed my eyes to slip closed, and found solace in the darkness.
When I opened my eyes again, the night sky had disappeared, replaced by a ceiling of solid ice. I realized we were traveling underground. The air grew even colder as the tunnel opened up into a magnificent ice cavern, glistening with a jagged, alien beauty. Huge icicles dripped from the ceiling, some longer than I was tall and wickedly sharp. It was a tad disturbing passing under those bristling spikes, watching them sparkle like crystal chandeliers, praying they wouldn’t fall.
My teeth chattered, and my lips were numb with cold. However, as we traveled deeper into the cave, the air gradually warmed. A faint noise echoed through the lower caverns: a roaring, hissing sound, like steam escaping a cracked pipe. Water dripped from the ceiling in rivulets now, soaking my clothes, and some of the ice shards looked dangerously unstable.
The hissing grew louder, punctuated with great roaring coughs and the acrid smell of smoke. Now I saw that some of the icicles had indeed fallen, smashed to pieces on the ground and glittering like broken glass.
My abductors brought me into a large cavern littered with shattered shards of ice. Puddles saturated the floor, and water fell like rain from the ceiling. The creatures dropped me to the icy ground and scuttled off. I rubbed my numb, aching limbs and looked around, wondering where I was. The cave was mostly empty, save for a wooden box filled with black rocks—coal?—in one corner. More were stacked along the far wall, next to a wooden archway that led off into the darkness.
A piercing whistle, like a steam engine roaring into the station, erupted from the tunnel, and black smoke churned from the opening. I smelled ashes and brimstone, and then a deep voice echoed throughout the cavern. “HAVE YOU BROUGHT HER?”
The scuttling creatures scattered, and several icicles smashed to the floor with an almost musical chime. I ducked behind an ice column as heavy footsteps clanked down the tunnel. Through the smoke, I saw something huge and grossly distorted, something definitely not human, and shook in terror.
A massive black horse emerged from the writhing smoke, eyes glowing like hot coals, flared nostrils blowing steam. It was as big as the horses that pulled the Budweiser wagon, but there the resemblance ended. At first, I thought it was covered in iron plates; its hide was bulky with metal, rusted and black, and it moved awkwardly with the weight. Then I realized its body was made of iron. Pistons and gears jutted out from its ribs. Its mane and tail were steel cables, and a great fire burned in its belly, visible through the chinks in its hide. Its face was a terrifying mask as it turned to me, blasting flame from its nostrils.
I fell back, certain I was going to die.
“ARE YOU MEGHAN CHASE?” The horse’s voice shook the room. More icicles committed suicide, but they were the least of my worries. I cringed back as the iron monster loomed over me, tossing its head and snorting flame. “ANSWER ME, HUMAN. ARE YOU MEGHAN CHASE, DAUGHTER OF THE SUMMER KING?”
“Yes,” I whispered as the horse moved closer, iron hooves pounding the ice. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“I AM IRONHORSE,” the beast replied, “ONE OF KING MACHINA’S LIEUTENANTS. I HAVE BROUGHT YOU HERE BECAUSE MY LORD HAS REQUESTED IT. YOU WILL COME WITH ME TO SEE THE IRON KING.”
The booming voice was giving me a headache. I tried to focus through the pounding in my skull. “The Iron King?” I asked stupidly. “Who—?”
“KING MACHINA,” Ironhorse confirmed. “SOVEREIGN LORD OF THE IRON COURT, AND RULER OF THE IRON FEY.”
A chill slid up my spine. I looked around, at the countless eyes of the gremlinlike monsters, to the massive bulk of Ironhorse, and felt dizzy at the implications. Iron fey? Could there be such a thing? In all the stories, poems, and plays, I’d never encountered anything like this. Where did they come from? And who was this Machina, ruler of the Iron Fey? More important…
“What does he want with me?”
“IT IS NOT MINE TO KNOW.” Ironhorse snorted, swishing its tail with a clanking sound. “I ONLY OBEY. HOWEVER, YOU WOULD BE WISE TO COME WITH US, IF YOU WISH TO SEE YOUR BROTHER AGAIN.”
“Ethan?” I jerked my head up, glaring at Ironhorse’s expressionless mask. “How do you know about him?” I demanded. “Is he all right? Where is he?”
“COME WITH ME, AND ALL YOUR QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED. THE IRON COURT AND MY LORD MACHINA AWAIT.”
I stood as Ironhorse turned, clanking back toward the tunnel. Its pistons creaked and the gears complained loudly as it shuffled forward. It was old, I realized, watching a bolt come loose and fall to the ground. A relic of days gone by. I wondered if there were newer, sleeker models out there, and what they looked like. Faster, better, more superior iron fey. After a moment, I decided I didn’t want to find out.
Ironhorse stood at the mouth of the tunnel, stamping impatiently. Sparks flew from its hooves as it glowered at me. “COME,” it ordered, with a blast of steam from its nostrils. “FOLLOW THE TROD TO THE IRON COURT. IF YOU WILL NOT WALK, THE GREMLINS WILL CARRY YOU.” It tossed its head and reared, flames shooting out its muzzle. “OR PERHAPS I WILL RUN BEHIND YOU, BREATHING FIRE—”
An ice spear flew through the air, striking Ironhorse between the ribs, bursting into steam as the fire engulfed it. The horse screamed, a high-pitched whistle, and whirled, hooves sparking as they struck the ice. The gremlins skittered forward, gazing wildly about, searching for intruders.
“Hey, ugly!” called a familiar voice. “Nice place you got here! Here’s a thought, though. Next time, try a hideout a little more resistant to fire than an ice cave!”
“Puck!” I cried, and the red-haired elf waved at me, grinning from the far side of the cavern. Ironhorse screamed and charged, scattering gremlins like birds as he bore down on Puck. Puck didn’t move, and the great iron beast knocked him flat in the ice, trampling him with his steel hooves.
“Oh, that looked painful,” called another Puck, a little farther down. “We really need to talk about your anger-management issues.”
With a roar, Ironhorse charged the second Puck, moving farther away from me and the trod. The gremlins followed, laughing and hissing, but kept a fair distance from the raging beast and its hooves.
A cool hand clamped over my mouth, muffling my startled shriek. I turned to gaze into glittering silver eyes.
“This way,” he said in a low voice, tugging on my hand, “while the idiot has them distracted.”