“I believe,” he purred, stretching it out, “I have found the trod you are looking for.”
We followed Grimalkin to the base of an ancient ruined castle, where shattered pillars and broken gargoyles lay scattered about the courtyard. Bones littered the area as well, poking up through the snow, making me nervous. Puck trailed behind, not speaking to any of us, wrapped in angry silence. I made a promise to talk to him later when he’d cooled down, but for now, I was anxious to get out of Unseelie territory.
“There,” Grimalkin said, nodding to a large stone pillar broken in two. One half rested on the other, forming an arch between them.
There was also a body lying in front of it. A body that was at least twelve feet tall, covered in hides and furs, with blue-white skin and a tangled white beard. It lay sprawled on its back with its face turned away, one meaty hand clutching a stone club.
Ash grimaced. “That’s right,” he muttered as we ducked behind a low stone wall. “Mab leaves her pet giant here to guard the place. Cold Tom doesn’t listen to anyone but the queen.”
I glared at the cat, who looked unconcerned. “You could have mentioned something, Grim. Did you forget that small but ever-so-important detail? Or did you just not see the twelve-foot giant in the middle of the floor?”
Puck, his animosity forgotten, or suppressed, peeked out from behind a boulder. “Looks like its Tom’s nappy time,” he said. “Maybe we can sneak around him.”
Grimalkin regarded each of us in turn and blinked slowly. “In times like these, I am even more grateful that I am a cat.” He sighed, and trotted toward the huge body.
“Grim! Stop!” I hissed after him. “What are you doing?”
The cat ignored me. My heart caught in my throat as he sauntered up to the giant, looking like a fuzzy mouse compared to Tom’s bulk. Gazing up at the body, he twitched his tail, crouched, and leaped onto the giant’s chest.
I stopped breathing, but the giant didn’t move. Perhaps Grimalkin was too light for him to even notice. The cat turned and sat down, curling his tail around his feet and watching us bemusedly.
“Dead,” he called to us. “Quite dead, in fact. You can stop cringing in abject terror if you like. I swear, how you survive with noses like that, I will never know. I could smell his stink a mile away.”
“He’s dead?” Ash immediately walked forward, brow furrowing. “Strange. Cold Tom was one of the strongest in his clan. How did he die?”
Grimalkin yawned. “Perhaps he ate something that disagreed with him.”
I edged forward cautiously. Maybe I’d watched too many horror flicks, but I almost expected the “dead” giant to open his eyes and take a swing at us. “What does it matter?” I called to Ash, still keeping a careful eye on the body. “If it’s dead, then we can get out of here without having to fight the thing.”
“You know nothing,” Ash replied. His gaze swept over the corpse, eyes narrowed. “This giant was strong, one of the strongest. Something killed him, within our territory. I want to know what could’ve taken Cold Tom down like this.”
I was close to the giant’s head now, close enough to see the blank, bulging eyes, the gray tongue lolling partway out of his mouth. Blue veins stood out around his eye sockets and in his neck. Whatever killed him, it wasn’t quick.
Then a metal spider crawled out of his mouth.
I screamed and leaped back. Puck and Ash rushed to my side as the huge arachnid skittered away, over Tom’s face and up a wall. Ash drew his sword, but Puck gave a shout and hurled a rock at it. The stone hit the spider dead on; with a flash of sparks the bug plummeted to the ground, landing with a metallic clink on the flagstones.
We approached cautiously, Ash with his sword drawn, Puck with a good-size rock. But the insect thing lay broken and motionless on the ground, almost smashed in two. Up close, it looked less spidery and more like those face-hugger things from Aliens, except it was made of metal. Gingerly, I picked it up by its whiplike tail.
“What is that?” Ash muttered. For once, the unflappable fey sounded almost…terrified. “Another of Machina’s iron fey?”
Something clicked in my head. “It’s a bug,” I whispered. The boys gave me puzzled frowns, and I plunged on. “Ironhorse, gremlins, bugs—it’s starting to make sense to me now.” I whirled on Puck, who blinked and stepped back. “Puck, didn’t you tell me once that the fey were born from the dreams of mortals?”
“Yeah?” Puck said, not getting it.
“Well, what if these things—” I jiggled the metal insect “—are born from different dreams? Dreams of technology, and progress? Dreams of science? What if the pursuit of ideas that once seemed impossible—flight, steam engines, the Worldwide Web—gave birth to a whole different species of faery? Mankind has made huge leaps in technology over the past hundred years. And with each success, we’ve kept reaching—dreaming—for more. These iron fey could be the result.”
Puck blanched, and Ash looked incredibly disturbed. “If that’s true,” he murmured, his gray eyes darkening like thunderclouds, “then all fey could be in danger. Not just the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. The Nevernever itself would be affected, the entire fey world.”
Puck nodded, looking more serious than I’d ever seen. “This is a war,” he said, locking gazes with Ash. “If the Iron King is killing the guardians of the trods, he must be planning to invade. We have to find Machina and destroy him. Perhaps he’s the heart of these iron fey. If we kill him, his followers could scatter.”
“I agree.” Ash sheathed his sword, giving the bug a revolted look. “We will bring Meghan to the Iron Court and rescue her brother by killing the ruler of the iron fey.”
“Bravo,” said Grimalkin, peering down from Cold Tom’s chest. “The Winter prince and Oberon’s jester agreeing on something. The world must be ending.”
We all glared at him. The cat sneezed a laugh and hopped down from the body, gazing up at the bug in my hand. He wrinkled his nose.
“Interesting,” he mused. “That thing stinks of iron and steel, and yet it does not burn you. I suppose being half-human has perks, after all.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Mmm. Toss it to Ash, would you?”
“No!” Ash stepped back, his hand going to his sword. Grimalkin smiled.
“You see? Even the mighty Winter prince cannot stand the touch of iron. You, on the other hand, can handle it with no ill effects. Now do you see why the courts are scrambling to find you? Think of what Mab could do if she had you under her control.”
I dropped the bug with a shudder. “Is that why Mab wants me?” I asked Ash, who still stood a few feet away. “As a weapon?”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” Grimalkin purred. “She cannot even use glamour. She would be a horrible assassin.”
“I don’t know why Mab wants you,” Ash said slowly, meeting my eyes. “I don’t question the orders of my queen. I only obey.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Puck broke in, stabbing a glare at the Winter prince. “First, we have to find Machina and take him out. Then we’ll decide matters from there.” His voice hinted that the matters he spoke of would be decided with a fight.
Ash looked like he wanted to say something else, but he nodded. Grimalkin yawned noisily and trotted toward the gate.
“Human, do not leave the bug here when we leave,” he called without looking back. “It might corrupt the land around it. You can dump it in your world and it will not make any difference.”
Tail waving, he trotted beneath the pillar and disappeared. Pinching the bug between thumb and forefinger, I stuffed it into my backpack. With Ash and Puck flanking me like wary guard dogs, I stepped under the pillars and everything went white.
AS THE BRIGHTNESS FADED, I gazed around, first in confusion, then in horror. I stood in the middle of an open mouth, with blunt teeth lining either side and a red tongue below my feet. I squawked in terror and leaped out, tripping over the bottom lip and sprawling flat on my stomach.
Twisting around, I saw Ash and Puck step through the gaping maw of a cartoonish blue whale. Sitting atop the whale statue, smiling and pointing off into the distance, was Pinocchio, his wooden features frozen in plaster and fiberglass.
“’Scuse me, lady!” A little girl in pink overalls stepped over me to rush into the whale’s mouth, followed by her two friends. Ash and Puck stepped aside, and the kids paid them no attention as they screamed and cavorted inside the whale’s jaws.
“Interesting place,” Puck mused as he pulled me to my feet. I didn’t answer, too busy gaping at our surroundings. It seemed we had stepped into the middle of a fantasyland. A giant pink shoe sat a few yards away, and a bright blue castle lay beyond, with kids swarming over both of them. Between park benches and shady trees, a pirate ship hosted a mob of miniature swashbucklers, and a magnificent green dragon reared on its hind legs, breathing plastic fire. The flame shooting from its mouth was an actual slide. I watched a small boy clamber up the steps of the dragon’s back and zip down the slide, hollering with delight, and smiled sadly.
Ethan would love this place, I thought, watching the boy dart off toward a pumpkin coach. Maybe, when this is all over, I’ll bring him here.
“Let us go,” Grimalkin said, leaping onto a giant pink mushroom. The cat’s tail bristled, and his eyes darted about. “The oracle is not far, but we should hurry.”
“Why so nervous, Grim?” Puck drawled, gazing around the park. “I think we should stay for a bit, soak up the atmosphere.” He grinned and waved at a small girl peeking at him from behind a cottage, and she ducked out of sight.
“Too many kids here,” Grimalkin said, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “Too much imagination. They can see us, you know. As we really are. And unlike the hob over there, I do not relish the attention.”
I followed his gaze and saw a short faery playing on the shoe with several children. He had curly brown hair, a battered trench coat, and furry ears poking from the sides of his head. He laughed and chased the kids around him, and the parents sitting on the benches didn’t seem to notice.
A boy of about three saw us and approached, his eyes on Grimalkin. “Kitty, kitty,” he crooned, holding out both hands. Grimalkin flattened his ears and hissed, baring his teeth, and the boy recoiled. “Beat it, kid,” he spat, and the boy burst into tears, running toward a couple on a bench. They frowned at their son’s wailing about a mean kitty, and glanced up at us.
“Right, time to go,” Puck said, striding away. We followed, with Grimalkin taking the lead. We left Storyland, as it was called on a sign by the exit, through a gate guarded by Humpty Dumpty and Little Bo Peep, and walked through a park filled with truly giant oak trees draped in moss and vines. I caught faces peering at us from the trunks, women with beady black eyes. Puck blew kisses at a few of them, and Ash bowed his head respectfully as we passed. Even Grimalkin nodded to the faces in the trees, making me wonder why they were so important.