The bark rippled, and an ancient woman stepped out of the tree. Her skin flaked, like wrinkled bark, and her long hair was the brownish-green of old moss. She was stooped and bent, covered in a robe of lichens that shivered with thousands of insects and spiders. Her face resembled a walnut, lined and wrinkled, and when she moved, her joints creaked like branches in the wind. But her beady eyes were sharp and clear as she looked me over and beckoned with one gnarled, twiggy hand.
“Come closer, child,” she whispered, her voice rustling like dry leaves. I swallowed and moved forward, until I could see the insects boring into her skin, smell the earthy scent of her. “Yes, you are the daughter of Oberon, the one whom the wind whispers about. I know why you are here. You seek the one called the Iron King, yes? You wish to find the entrance into his realm.”
“Yes,” I murmured. “I’m looking for my brother. Machina kidnapped him, and I’m going to get him back.”
“As you are, you will not be able to save him,” the Elder told me, and my stomach dropped to my toes. “The Iron King waits for you in his lair of steel. He knows you are coming, and you will not be able to stop him. No weapon forged by mortal or fey can harm the Iron King. He fears nothing.”
Ash stepped forward, bowing his head respectfully. “Elder,” he murmured, “we were told you might know the secret to slaying the Iron King.”
The ancient dryad regarded him solemnly. “Yes, young prince,” she whispered. “You heard true. There is a way to kill Machina and end his reign. You need a special weapon, one that cannot be forged with tools, something as natural as a flower growing in the sunlight.”
Ash leaned forward eagerly. “Where can we find this weapon?”
The Elder Dryad sighed, and seemed to shrink in on herself. “Here,” she murmured, looking back at the great oak, her voice tinged with sadness. “The weapon you require is Witchwood, from the heart of the most ancient of trees, as deadly to Machina as iron is to normal fey. A living wood containing the spirit of nature and the power of the natural earth—a bane to the faeries of progress and technology. Without it, you cannot hope to defeat him and save the human child.”
Ash fell silent, his face grim. Bewildered, I looked to him, then back at the Elder Dryad. “You’ll give it to us, won’t you?” I asked. “If it’s the only way to save Ethan—”
“Meghan,” Grimalkin murmured from the grass, “you do not know what you are asking. Witchwood is the heart of the Elder’s tree. Without it, the oak will die, and so will the dryad connected to it.”
Dismayed, I looked at the Elder Dryad, whose lips curled in a faint smile. “It’s true,” she whispered. “Without its heart, the tree will slowly wither and die. And yet, I knew what you came for, Meghan Chase. I planned to offer it from the beginning.”
“No,” I said automatically. “I don’t want it. Not like this. There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way, child.” The Elder shook her head at me. “And if you do not defeat the Iron King, we will perish all the same. His influence grows. The stronger he becomes, the more the Nevernever fades. Eventually we will all wither and die in a wasteland of logic and science.”
“But I can’t kill him,” I protested. “I’m not a warrior. I just want Ethan back, that’s all.”
“You won’t have to worry about that.” The dryad nodded to Ash, standing silently nearby. “The Winter prince can fight for you, I imagine. He smells of blood and sorrow. I will happily grant the Witchwood to him.”
“Please.” I looked at her, pleading, wanting her to understand. Puck had already possibly given his life for my quest; I didn’t want another’s death on my hands. “I don’t want you to do this. It’s too much. You shouldn’t have to die for me.”
“I give my life for all fey,” the dryad replied solemnly. “You will simply be my instrument of salvation. Besides, death comes for us all, in the end. I have lived a long life, longer than most. I have no regrets.”
She smiled at me, an old, grandmotherly smile, and faded back into her oak. Ash, Grim, and the other dryads stood silently, their expressions somber and grave. A moment later, the Elder reemerged, clutching something in her withered hands—a long, straight stick, so pale it was almost white, with reddish veins running down its length. When she stepped up and offered it to me, seconds passed before I could take it. It was warm and smooth in my hands, pulsing with a life of its own, and I almost hurled it away.
The Elder placed a withered, knobby hand on my arm. “One more thing, child,” she added as I struggled with holding the living wood. “You are powerful, much more so than you realize. Oberon’s blood flows through your veins, and the Nevernever itself responds to your whims. Your talent still sleeps within you, but it is beginning to stir. How you use it will shape the future of the courts, the fey, your own destiny, everything.
“Now,” she continued, sounding weaker than before, “go and rescue your brother. The trod to Machina’s realm is an abandoned factory down by the wharfs. A guide will lead you there tomorrow. Kill the Iron King and bring peace to both our worlds.”
“What if I can’t?” I whispered. “What if the Iron King truly is invincible?”
“Then we will all die,” said the Elder Dryad, and faded back into her oak. The other dryads left, leaving me alone with a cat, a prince, and a stick. I sighed and looked down at the wood in my hands.
“No pressure or anything,” I muttered.
Iron Dragons and Packrats
We left at dawn. Time enough for me to catch maybe two hours of sleep on the lumpy ground, and say my last goodbyes to Puck. He was still sleeping, deep within the tree, when I woke up in the still hours before sunrise. The dryad attached to the oak told me he still lived, but she didn’t have any idea when he would wake.
I stood beside the oak for several minutes, my hand against the bark, trying to feel his heartbeat through the wood. I missed him. Ash and Grimalkin might be allies, but they were not friends. They wanted to use me for their own ends. Only Puck truly cared, and now he was gone.
“Meghan.” Ash appeared behind me, his voice surprisingly gentle. “We should go. We can’t afford to wait for him, not if it could be months before he wakes up. We don’t have that time.”
“I know.” I pressed my palm into the bark, feeling the rough edges scrape my skin. Wake up quickly, I told him, wondering if he dreamed, if he could feel my touch through the tree. Wake up quickly, and find me. I’ll be waiting.
I turned to Ash, who was dressed for battle, with his sword at his waist and a bow slung across his back. Looking at him made my skin tingle.
“Do you have it?” I asked, to hide the burning in my cheeks.
He nodded, and held up a gleaming white arrow with red veins curling around it. He’d asked for the Witchwood the previous night, claiming he could turn it into a suitable weapon, and I gave it to him without hesitation. Now I stared at the dart, feeling my apprehension grow. It seemed like such a small, fragile thing to take down the supposedly invincible King of the Iron Fey.
“Can I hold it?” I asked, and Ash immediately placed the arrow in my palm, his fingers lingering on mine. The wood throbbed in my hand, a rhythmic pulse-pulse, like a heartbeat; I shuddered and held it out, waiting for him to take it back.
“Hold on to it for me,” Ash said softly, his gaze never leaving mine. “This is your quest. You decide when I’m supposed to use it.”
I blushed and opened my backpack, shoving the dart inside. The shaft of the arrow stuck out of the pack, and I closed the zippers around it, securing it in place before swinging the thing over my shoulders. The bag was heavier now; last night, I’d raided a park fountain and scraped up enough change to buy food and bottled water for the rest of the journey. The clerk at the nearby gas station seemed a bit annoyed at having to count handfuls of dimes and quarters at one in the morning, but I didn’t want to start the final leg of our journey empty-handed. I hoped Ash and Grim liked beef jerky, trail mix, and Skittles.
“You’ll only get one shot,” I murmured. Ash smiled without humor.
“Then I’ll have to make it count.”
He sounded so confident. I wondered if he was ever afraid, or had second thoughts about what he had to do. Holding a grudge seemed foolish now, since he was about to follow me into mortal danger. “Look, I’m sorry about last night,” I offered. “I didn’t mean to be a psycho. I was just worried about Ethan. And with Puck getting shot and everything—”
“Don’t worry about it, Meghan.”
I blinked, my stomach fluttering. That was the first time he’d called me by name. “Ash, I—”
“I have been thinking,” Grimalkin announced, leaping onto a rock. I glared and bit down a sigh, cursing his timing. The cat plowed on without notice. “Perhaps we should rethink our strategy,” he said, looking at each of us. “It occurs to me that charging headlong into Machina’s realm is a singularly bad idea.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well.” The cat sat down and licked his back toes. “Given that he keeps sending his officers after us, I would guess that he probably knows we are coming. Why did he kidnap your brother in the first place? He must have known you would come after him.”
“Overconfident?” I guessed. Grimalkin shook his head.
“No. Something is missing. Or maybe we are just not seeing it. The Iron King would have no use for a child. Unless…” The cat looked up at us, narrowing his eyes. “I am leaving.”
“I have a theory.” Grimalkin stood, waving his tail. “I think I might know another way into Machina’s realm. You are welcome to join me.”
“A theory?” Ash crossed his arms. “We can’t break plan on a hunch, Cait Sith.”
“Even if the way you are going leads straight into a trap?”
I shook my head. “We have to risk it. We’re so close, Grim. We can’t turn back now.” I knelt to face Grimalkin eye to eye. “Come with us. We need you. You’ve always pointed us in the right direction.”
“I am not a fighter, human.” Grimalkin shook his head and blinked. “You have the prince for that. I accompanied you to show you the way to your brother, and for my own amusement. But I know my limitations.” He looked at Ash and pinned his ears. “I would be no help to you in there. Not the way you are going. So, it is time we settled our debts and parted ways.”
That’s right. I still owed the cat a favor. Uneasiness stirred. I hoped the cat wouldn’t ask for my voice, or my future kid. I still didn’t know what went on in that devious little head of his. “Right.” I sighed, trying to keep my voice from shaking. Ash moved to stand behind me, a quiet, confident presence. “A deal’s a deal. What do you want, Grim?”