“Don’t do that again.” I’d intended to yell at him, but his vulnerability made me pause. He blinked, but had the grace not to ask what I was talking about.
“My apologies,” he murmured, bowing his head. “I thought at least one of us could benefit from a few hours’ sleep.”
God, he looked awful. His cheeks were hollow, dark circles crouched under his eyes, and his skin was almost translucent. I needed to find Ethan and get us all out of here, before Ash turned into a walking skeleton and collapsed dead at my feet.
Ash looked past me to the tower, seeming to draw strength from it. “Not far now,” he murmured, as if it were a mantra that kept him going. I held out my hand, and he let me pull him to his feet.
We started following the tracks again.
The smokestacks and metal towers slowly fell away behind us as we continued across Machina’s realm. The land grew flat and barren, and steam billowed out of cracks in the ground, coiling around us like wraiths. Colossal machines, with enormous iron wheels and armored shells, lay beside the tracks. They looked like a cross between modern-day tanks and the mecha vehicles of anime. They were old and rusty, and reminded me strangely of Ironhorse.
Ash grunted suddenly and fell, his legs buckling underneath him. I grabbed his arm as he pulled himself upright, panting. He felt so thin.
“Should we stop and rest?” I asked.
“No,” he gritted out. “Keep going. We have to—”
Suddenly he straightened, his hand going to his sword.
Ahead of us, the steam cleared, parting enough to reveal a hulking figure standing on the tracks. A horse made of iron and snorting flame, steel hooves pawing the ground. His glowing eyes watched us balefully.
“Ironhorse!” I gasped, wondering, for a surreal moment, if my earlier thoughts had summoned him here.
“THOUGHT YOU GOT RID OF ME, DID YOU?” Ironhorse boomed, his voice reverberating off the machines around us. “IT WILL TAKE MORE THAN A CAVE-IN TO KILL ME. I MADE THE MISTAKE OF UNDERESTIMATING YOU BEFORE. THAT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN.”
Movement surged around us as hundreds of gremlins crawled into view, hissing and crackling. They swarmed over the machines like spiders, laughing and chittering, and scuttled along the ground. In seconds, they had us surrounded, a living black carpet. Ash drew his sword, and the gremlins hissed at him nastily.
Two figures appeared through the steam on either side of us. They marched forward in unison, and the gremlins parted to let them through. Warriors in full battle armor, with helmets and masks covering their faces, stepped into the circle. Their insectlike suits looked like something from a science-fiction movie, somehow ancient and modern at the same time. Their breastplates bore the insignia of a barbed-wire crown. Drawing their swords, they stepped forward.
“Meghan, get back,” Ash muttered, squaring off against the armored pair coming at him.
“Are you crazy? You can’t fight like this—”
Reluctantly, I backed away, but was suddenly grabbed from behind. I yelped and kicked, but was dragged to the edge of the circle, where the gremlins jabbered at me. I twisted around and saw that my captor was a third warrior.
“Meghan!” Ash tried to follow, but the first two knights blocked his way, the sickly light glinting off their iron blades. Glaring at them, Ash flourished his sword and sank into a battle stance.
They lunged at him, swords sweeping down in a blur, coming both low and high. Ash leaped over the first and parried the second, knocking it away with a flurry of ice and sparks. He landed, spun to his left to block the savage back strike, and ducked as the second blade hissed overhead. Whirling around, his sword lashed out, slicing across one armored chest with a grinding screech. The knight staggered back, the image of the wire crown cut through and coated with frost.
They broke away for a moment, facing each other, swords at the ready. Ash was panting, his eyes narrowed in concentration. He didn’t look good, and my stomach tightened in fear. The other knights slowly began to circle him, coming at him from different sides like stalking wolves. But before they could get into position, Ash snarled and lunged.
For a moment, the knight he engaged was driven back by the ferocity of the attack. Ash hammered into him relentlessly, his blade slipping through his enemy’s guard to smash at his armor. Sparks flew, and the knight stumbled, almost falling. Ash’s blade swept up and struck a vicious blow to the side of his head, ripping the helmet clean off.
I gasped. The face beneath the helmet was Ash, or at least a long-lost brother. Same gray eyes, same ebony hair, same pointed ears. The face was a little older, and a scar slashed its way down his cheek, but the similarities were almost perfect.
The real Ash hesitated, just as stunned as I, and that cost him dearly. The second knight rushed up behind him, his sword slashing down, and Ash whirled—too late. His blade caught his opponent’s sword, but the blow knocked the weapon from his hands. At the same time, his companion backhanded Ash with his metal gauntlet, striking him behind the ear. Ash crumpled to the ground on his back, and two iron swords were pressed against his throat.
“No!” I tried to run to him, but the third warrior held me and twisted my arms behind my back. Manacles were snapped around my wrists. The two knights kicked Ash onto his stomach and wrenched his arms behind him, binding him similarly. I heard him gasp as the metal touched his flesh, and his doppelg?nger jerked him savagely to his feet.
They shoved us toward Ironhorse, who waited for us in the middle of the tracks, swishing his tail. His iron mask gave nothing away.
“GOOD,” he snorted. “KING MACHINA WILL BE PLEASED.” His red eyes fastened on Ash, who was barely able to stand, and he pinned back his ears. “DISPOSE OF THEIR WEAPONS,” he ordered disdainfully.
Ash’s face was twisted in agony. Sweat trickled down his brow, and he clenched his teeth. He watched the iron knight take his sword to the edge of the tracks and toss it into a ditch. There was a soft splash as the blade hit the oily water and sank from view. A second knight did the same with the bow. I held my breath, praying they wouldn’t see the most important weapon of all.
“THE ARROW, TOO.”
My heart sank and despair rose up in me. Ash’s doppelg?nger approached, yanked the Witchwood arrow from my backpack, and tossed it into the ditch with the rest of the weapons. My heart plummeted even further, and the tiny sliver of hope shriveled into a ball and died. That was it, then. Game over. We had failed.
Ironhorse looked us both over and snorted steam. “NO FUNNY BUSINESS FROM YOU, PRINCESS,” he warned, blowing smoke at me. “OR MY KNIGHTS WILL WRAP SO MUCH IRON AROUND THE WINTER PRINCE THAT HIS SKIN WILL PEEL OFF HIS BONES.” He coughed flame, singeing my eyebrows, and swung his head toward the waiting fortress. “LET’S GO. KING MACHINA AWAITS.”
Ash’s Final Stand
It was a torturous, nightmare march toward Machina’s tower.
A length of chain had been wrapped around my waist, attaching me to Ironhorse, who walked briskly down the tracks without pausing or looking back. Beside me, Ash wore another, and I knew it was hurting him. He kept stumbling, barely managing to keep his feet as we followed Ironhorse down the railroad tracks. Gremlins cavorted around us, poking and pinching and laughing at our torment. The knights walked to either side and refused to let Ash step off the iron tracks, shoving him back if he tried. Once, he fell, and was dragged several yards before he finally got his feet under him again. Angry red burns crisscrossed his face where his skin had touched the metal tracks, and I ached for him.
The sky clouded over, changing from yellow-gray to an ominous reddish-black in a matter of moments. Ironhorse stopped and craned his neck, flaring his nostrils.
“DAMN,” he muttered, stomping a hoof. “IT’S GOING TO RAIN SOON.”
My stomach turned at the thought of the acid rain. Lightning flashed, filling the air with a sharp tang.
“QUICKLY, BEFORE THE STORM HITS.” The horse stepped off the tracks, breaking into a trot as thunder growled overhead. My legs burned as I broke into an awkward sprint behind him, every muscle screaming in protest, but it was either keep up or be dragged. Ash stumbled and fell, and this time he did not get up.
A drop of rain spattered against my leg, and a searing pain lanced through me. I gasped. More drops fell, hissing as they struck the ground. The air reeked of chemicals, and I heard a few gremlins screech as the raindrops hit them, as well.
A silvery curtain of rain crept toward us. It caught up to a few of the slower gremlins, engulfing them. They screamed and writhed, sparks leaping off their bodies, until they gave a final twitch and were still. The rain came on.
Panicked, I looked up to see Ironhorse leading us into a mine shaft. We ducked under the roof just as the storm swept over us, catching a few more gremlins, who squealed and danced around in agony, holes burned through their skin. The rest of the gremlins jeered and laughed. I turned away before I was sick
Ash lay motionless on the ground, covered in dust and blood from where he’d been dragged. Steam curled off his body where the raindrops had hit. He groaned and tried to get up, but didn’t quite make it off his back. Snickering, a few gremlins started poking him, climbing onto his chest to slap his face. He flinched and turned away, but this only encouraged them further.
“Stop it!” I lunged and kicked a gremlin with all my might, launching it away from Ash like a football. The others turned on me, and I lashed out at them all, kicking and stomping. Hissing, they swarmed up my pant legs, pulling my hair and raking me with their claws. One sank its razor-sharp teeth into my shoulder, and I screamed.
“ENOUGH!” Ironhorse’s shout made the ceiling tremble. Dirt showered us, and the gremlins skittered back. Blood ran down my skin from a dozen tiny wounds, and my shoulder throbbed where the gremlin had bitten it. Ironhorse glared at me, swishing his tail against his flanks, then tossed his head at the knights.
“TAKE THEM INTO THE TUNNELS,” he ordered with a hint of exasperation. “MAKE SURE THEY DO NOT ESCAPE. IF THE STORM DOES NOT ABATE, WE MIGHT BE HERE AWHILE.”
The chains binding us to Ironhorse were released. Two knights pulled Ash to his feet and half dragged him away down a tunnel. The last knight, the one with Ash’s face, took me by the arm and led me after his brothers.
We paused at a junction where several tunnels merged. Wooden tracks led off into the darkness, and rickety cars half-filled with ore sat off to the sides. Thick wooden beams held up the ceiling, standing along the tracks every few feet. A few lanterns had been nailed into the wood, though most were broken and dark. In the flickering torchlight, glimmering veins of iron snaked across the walls.
We continued down a tunnel that dead-ended in a small room, where two wooden posts stood side by side in the middle of the room. A few crates and an abandoned pickax lay stacked in a corner. The knights pushed Ash against one post, unlocked a cuff, and reattached it behind the beam, securing him in place. The flesh under the metal band was red and burned, and he jerked when they snapped it around his wrist again. I bit my lip in sympathy.
The knight who’d first caught me straightened and patted Ash on the cheek, chuckling as Ash flinched away from the steel gauntlet. “Feels good, don’t it, worm?” he said, and I started in surprise. This was the first time I’d heard one of them speak. “You oldbloods are completely weak, aren’t you? It’s high time you moved over. You’re obsolete now, ancient. Your time is done.”