“Ash—”

A piercing crack interrupted us. The dragon freed a forepaw and smashed it to the floor. More cracks appeared as it struggled to rise, shedding ice. Ash grabbed my hand and ran.

With an enraged shriek, the dragon shattered its ice prison, sending shards flying. We pelted across the room, hearing the dragon give chase, its claws digging into the icy ground. The hole with its missing grate loomed ahead, and we flung ourselves toward it, leaping through the steam and plummeting into the unknown. The dragon’s frustrated bellow rang overhead, as clouds of steam enveloped us, and everything went white.

I DIDN’T REMEMBER LANDING, though I was aware of Ash holding my hand as the steam cleared around us. Eyes widening, we both stared around in horror.

A twisted landscape stretched out before us, barren and dark, the sky a sickly yellow-gray. Mountains of rubble dominated the land: ancient computers, rusty cars, televisions, dial phones, radios, all piled into huge mounds that loomed over everything. Some of the piles were alight, burning with a thick, choking smog. A hot wind howled through the wasteland, stirring dust into glittering eddies, spinning the wheel of an ancient bicycle lying on a trash heap. Scraps of aluminum, old cans, and foam cups rolled over the ground, and a sharp, coppery smell hung in the air, clogging the back of my throat. The trees here were sickly things, bent and withered. A few bore lightbulbs and batteries that hung like glittering fruit.

“This is the Nevernever,” Ash muttered. His voice was grim. “Somewhere in the Deep Tangle, if I had to guess. No wonder the wyldwood is dying.”

“This is the Nevernever?” I asked, gazing around in shock. I remembered the frigid, pristine beauty of Tir Na Nog, the blinding colors of the Summer Court. “No way. How could it get like this?”

“Machina,” Ash replied. “The territories take on the aspects of their rulers. I’m guessing his realm is very small right now, but if it expands, it’ll swallow the wyldwood and eventually destroy the Nevernever.”

I thought I hated Faeryland, and everything in it, but that was before Ash. This was his home. If the Nevernever died, he would die, too. So would Puck and Grim, and everyone else I met on my strange journey here. “We have to stop it,” I exclaimed, gazing around the dead landscape. Smog tickled my throat, making me want to cough. “We can’t let this spread.”

Ash smiled, cold and frightening. “That’s why we’re here.”

Slowly, we made our way through the mountains of junk, keeping a wary eye on any that might come to life and attack. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement and spun toward it, fearful of another dragon disguised as harmless debris. It wasn’t a dragon this time, but several small, hunch-backed creatures waddling to and fro between the mounds. They looked like withered gnomes, bent over by the huge amount of stuff piled on their backs, like giant hermit crabs. When they found an item they liked—a broken toy, the spokes of a bicycle—they attached it to the collection on their backs and shuffled to the next mound. Some of their humps were large and quite impressive, in a sad kind of way.

A few of the creatures saw us and came waddling up, beady eyes bright and curious. Ash went for his sword, but I laid a hand on his arm. I sensed these beings weren’t dangerous, and perhaps they could point us in the right direction.

“Hello,” I greeted softly as they surrounded us, snuffling like eager dogs. “We don’t want any trouble. We’re just a little lost.”

They cocked their heads but didn’t say anything. A few pressed closer, and several long fingers reached out to poke my backpack, tugging on the bright material. Not maliciously, but curious, like seagulls pecking at a button. Two of them crowded Ash, pawing at his sword sheath. He shifted uneasily and stepped away.

“I need to find King Machina,” I said. “Can you show us where he lives?”

But the creatures weren’t paying attention, too busy pawing at my backpack, jabbering among themselves. One gave it an experimental yank that nearly toppled me off my feet.

In a flash of blue light, Ash drew his sword. The creatures scuttled back, their eyes wide and fixated to the glowing blade. A few twitched their fingers, like they wanted to touch it, but knew better than to approach.

“Come on,” Ash muttered, pointing his sword at any gnome that edged forward. “They’re not going to help us. Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait.” I grabbed his sleeve as he turned. “I’ve got an idea.”

Taking off my pack, I unzipped the side pocket, reached inside, and pulled out the broken iPod from so long ago. Stepping forward, I raised it high, seeing the gnomes follow it with wide, unbroken stares.

“A deal,” I called into the silence. They watched me without blinking. “Do you see this?” I said, waving the iPod back and forth. They followed it, like dogs eyeing a cookie. “I’ll give it to you, but in return, you take me to the Iron King.”

The gnomes turned and jabbered to one another, occasionally peeking back to make sure I was still there. Finally, one of them stepped forward. A whole tricycle teetered at the top of his hump. He fixed me with an unblinking stare, and beckoned me to follow.

We trailed the odd little creatures—whom I secretly dubbed the pack rats—through the wasteland of junk, drawing curious stares from the other residents living there. I saw more of the ratlike men whose teeth rusted metal, a few scrawny dogs wandering about, and swarms of iron bugs crawling over everything. Once, in the distance, I caught a terrifying glimpse of another dragon, unfurling from a mound of trash. Thankfully, it only shifted into a more comfortable sleeping position and returned to its perfect disguise as a pile of debris.

At last, the mountains of garbage fell away, and the lead pack rat pointed a long finger down a barren plain. Across a cracked, gray plateau, spiderwebbed with lava and millions of blinking lights, a railroad stretched away into the distance. Hulking machines, like enormous iron beetles, sat beside it, snorting steam. And silhouetted against the sky, a jagged black tower stabbed up from the earth, wreathed in smog and billowing smoke.

Machina’s fortress.

Ash drew in a quiet breath. I stared at the imposing tower, my stomach contracting with fear, until a tug on my backpack snapped me out of my daze. The pack rat stood there, an expectant look on his face, fingers twitching.

“Oh, yeah.” Fishing out the iPod, I handed it to him solemnly. “A deal’s a deal. Hope you enjoy it.”

The pack rat chittered with joy. Clutching the device to his chest, he scuttled off like an enormous crab, vanishing back into the wasteland of junk. I heard excited jabbering, and imagined him showing off his trophy for all to see. Then the voices faded and we were alone.

Ash turned to me, and I was struck with how awful he looked. His skin was ashen; there were shadows under his eyes, and his hair was damp with sweat.

“Will you be all right?” I whispered. One corner of his mouth curled up.

“We’ll see, won’t we?”

I reached for his hand, wrapped my fingers around his, and squeezed. He put my hand to his face and closed his eyes, as if drawing strength from my touch. Together, we descended into the heart of Machina’s realm.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Knights of the Iron Crown

“Don’t look now,” ASH muttered after hours of walking, “but we’re being followed.”

I craned my head over my shoulder. We were following the railroad—walking beside it, instead of directly on the iron tracks—toward the looming fortress, and hadn’t encountered a single creature, faery or otherwise, on the journey. Streetlamps grew out of the ground, lighting the way, and iron behemoths, reminding me of vehicles in a steam-punk anime, crouched along the tracks, hissing smoke. Through the writhing steam, it was difficult to see more than a few yards away.

But then, a small, familiar creature scuttled across the tracks, vanishing into the smoke. I caught a glimpse of a tricycle poking up from a mound of junk and frowned. “Why are the pack rats following us?”

“Pack rats?” Ash smirked at me.

“Yeah, you know, they collect shiny stuff, hoard it in their dens? Pack rats? Oh, never mind.” I mock glared at him, too worried to be irritated. Ash never complained, but I could see the iron everywhere was taking a toll on him. “Do you want to stop somewhere and rest?”

“No.” He pressed a palm to one eye, as if trying to squelch a headache. “It won’t make any difference.”

The twisted landscape went on. We passed pools of molten lava, bubbling and shimmering with heat. Smokestacks loomed overhead, belching great spouts of black pollution that writhed into the yellow-gray sky. Lightning arched and crackled across blinking metal towers, and the air hummed with electricity. Pipes crisscrossed the ground, leaking steam from joints and valves, and black wires slashed the sky overhead. The tang of iron, rust, and smog clogged my throat and burned my nose.

Ash spoke very little, stumbling on with grim determination. My worry for him was a constant knot in my stomach. I was doing this to him; it was my contract that bound him to help, even though it was slowly killing him. But we couldn’t turn back, and I could only watch, helpless, as Ash struggled to continue. His breath rasped painfully in his throat, and he grew paler by the hour. Fear clawed my insides. I was terrified he would die and leave me alone in this dark, twisted place.

A day passed, and the iron tower loomed black and menacing overhead, though it was still far in the distance. The sickly yellow-gray of the sky darkened, and the hazy outline of a moon shimmered behind the clouds. I stopped, looking up at the sky. No stars. None at all. The artificial lights reflected off the haze, making the night nearly as bright as the day.

Ash began coughing, putting a hand against a crumbling wall to steady himself. I slipped my arms around him, holding him steady as he leaned into me. The harsh explosions made my heart constrict. “We should rest,” I muttered, gazing around for a place to camp. A huge cement tube lay half buried in the dirt at the bottom of the tracks, covered in graffiti, and I motioned him toward it. “Come on.”

He didn’t argue this time, but followed me down the slope and into the cement shelter. It wasn’t tall enough for us to stand up straight, and the floor was sprinkled with chips of colored glass. Not the best of campsites, but at least it wasn’t iron. I kicked away a broken bottle and sat down carefully, shrugging off my backpack.

Pulling the sword from his belt, Ash sank down opposite me with a barely concealed groan. The Witchwood arrow throbbed as I unzipped the pack and reached around it for the food and bottled water.

Ripping open a bag of jerky, I offered some to Ash. He shook his head, his eyes weary and dull.

“You should eat something,” I chided, gnawing on the dried meat. I wasn’t particularly hungry myself, too tired, hot, and worried to have an appetite, but I wanted something in my stomach. “I have trail mix or candy if you want something else. Here.” I waggled a bag of peanut mix at him. He eyed it dubiously, and I frowned. “I’m sorry, but they don’t sell faery food at mini-marts. Eat.”


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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