They jabbered at me and patted my hands. I wished I knew what they were saying. Then, with a sharp bark from the leader, they turned and faded into the tunnels. The small one looked back once, his eyes bright in the gloom, and then they were gone.
I straightened, tucking the arrow into my belt much as Ash had done. Gripping the bow, and with Ash’s sword hanging from my waist, I stepped beneath Machina’s tower.
I FOLLOWED THE WALKWAY, which turned from stone to iron grating, through the giant maze of clockwork, setting my teeth against the grinding of metal on metal. I found a twisting iron staircase and followed it up to a trapdoor, which opened with a ringing bang. I winced and peeked out cautiously.
Nothing. The room I stared into was empty, save for the enormous boiler ovens that glowed red and filled the air with hissing steam.
“All right,” I muttered, climbing out of the floor. My face and shirt were already drenched with sweat from the shimmering heat. “I’m inside. Where to now, I wonder?”
The thought came unbidden, and yet I knew it was right. Machina, and Ethan, would be at the top of the tower.
Clanking footsteps caught my attention, and I ducked behind one of the boilers, ignoring the searing heat radiating from the metal. Several figures entered the room, short and stocky and dressed in bulky canvas suits like firemen. They wore breathing apparatus that covered their entire faces, a pair of tubes snaking from the mouth to some kind of tank on their back. They stomped among the boilers, pinging on them with wrenches, checking the numerous pipes and valves. A large ring of keys dangled from each of their belts, jingling as they moved. As I scrambled back to an isolated corner, an idea floated to mind.
I followed them, staying hidden in the steam and shadows, observing how they worked. The workers didn’t converse or speak to one another, being too caught up in their own work, which suited me fine. One broke off from the rest of the group, which paid him no attention as he wandered off into the steam. I trailed him down a hallway made of pipes, watching as he bent to check a hissing crack in the metal, and snuck up behind him.
Drawing Ash’s sword, I waited until he turned around before stepping up and pressing the point of the blade against his chest. The worker jumped and scuttled backward, but the network of pipes trapped him between me and the exit. I stepped forward and angled the blade at his throat.
“Don’t move,” I snarled as fiercely as I could. He nodded and held up his gloved hands. My heart pounded, but I rushed on, poking at him with the blade. “Do exactly as I say and I won’t kill you, all right? Take off your suit.”
He obeyed, shedding his outer clothes and taking off the mask, revealing a sweaty little man with a thick black beard. A dwarf, and an ordinary-looking one at that; no steel skin, no cables coming out of his head, nothing to mark him as an iron fey. He glared at me with coal-black eyes, his arms rippling with muscle, and broke into a sneer.
“Come at last, have you?” He spat on the ground near a pipe, where it sizzled noisily. “We were all wondering what route you’d end up taking. Well, if you’re going to kill me, girl, get it over with.”
“I’m not here to kill anyone,” I said carefully, keeping the sword trained on him as I’d seen Ash do. “I’m only here for my brother.”
The dwarf snorted. “He’s upstairs in the throne room with Machina. Top west tower. Good luck getting to him.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re being awfully helpful. Why should I believe you?”
“Bah, we don’t care about Machina or your whiny brother, girl.” The dwarf hawked and spat on a pipe, where it bubbled like acid. “Our job is to keep this place running, not play court with a bunch of snotty aristocrats. Machina’s business is his own, and I’ll ask you to keep me out of it.”
“So, you’re not going to stop me?”
“Do you have lead in your ears? I don’t care what you do, girl! So kill me or leave me the hell alone, would you? I won’t get in your way, if you don’t get in mine.”
“All right.” I lowered the sword. “But I’ll need your suit.”
“Fine, take it.” The dwarf kicked it toward me with a steel-toed boot. “We’ve got several. Now, can I get back to work, or do you have more inane demands to keep me from my job?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I couldn’t leave him running loose. No matter what he said, he could tell the other workers, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t fight off all of them. I looked around and saw another trapdoor, like the one I’d come up from a few feet away.
I pointed at it with the sword. “Open that and get down there.”
“Into the Cogworks?”
“Leave your boots. And your keys.”
He glowered, and I raised my sword, ready to slash if he lunged at me. But the dwarf growled a curse, stalked over to the metal grate, and shoved a key into the lock. Pushing it open with a bang, he wrenched off his boots and stomped down the twisting staircase, making it ring with every step. With the dwarf glaring up at me, I shut the door and locked it, ignoring the guilt that gnawed my insides.
I dressed in the dwarf’s suit, which was hot and heavy and reeked of sweat. I gagged as I slipped it on. It was too short, but between the suit’s bagginess and my skinny frame, I made it work. My calves stuck out of the pant legs, but I shoved my sneakers into the dwarf’s boots and it wasn’t so noticeable. At least, I hoped it wasn’t. I heaved the tank onto my back, finding it surprisingly light, and put on the mask. Cool, sweet air hit my face, and I sighed in relief.
Now the only problem was the sword and the bow. I figured the workmen of the tower didn’t stomp around with weapons, so I found a piece of canvas and wrapped them up in it, tucking it under my arm. The Witchwood arrow was still secured to my belt inside the suit.
Heart pounding, I returned to the boiler room, where the other dwarfs were shuffling out in a broken line. Taking a deep breath to calm my twisting stomach, I joined them, keeping my head down and not making eye contact. No one paid any attention to me, and I followed them up a long flight of stairs, until we reached the main tower.
MACHINA’S FORTRESS WAS HUGE, metallic, and sharp. Thorned creepers crawled over the ramparts, their barbs made of metal. Jagged shards jutted away from the walls for no apparent reason. Everything was harsh lines and sharp edges, even the fey that lived here. Besides the ever-present gremlins, I saw more armored knights, hounds made of clockwork, and creatures that looked like metallic praying mantises, their bladed arms and silvery antennae glinting in the dim light.
The dwarfs scattered as they left the staircase, breaking away in little groups of twos and threes. I drifted away from the rapidly diminishing crowd and followed the wall, trying to look as if I had a purpose. Gremlins scuttled along the walls, chasing one another and tormenting the other fey. Computer mice with tiny ears, feet, and blinking red eyes scurried away as I approached. Once, a gremlin landed on one, eliciting a high-pitched squeak, before stuffing the tiny creature into its mouth and crunching the sparks. It grinned at me, the mouse’s tail hanging between its pointed teeth, and scuttled off again. Wrinkling my nose, I continued walking.
At last I discovered a staircase, spiraling up hundreds of feet along the tower walls. Gazing up at the infinite number of stairs, I felt a pull in my stomach. This was the one. Ethan was up there. And Machina.
I felt a pain in my heart, as if there was something…someone else I should remember. But the memory skipped away, out of reach. With my heart fluttering around my ribs like a crazed bat, I started the last leg of my journey.
There were small, narrow windows every twenty steps up the stairs. I peered out once and saw the open sky, with strange glittering birds soaring on the wind. At the top of the stairs stood an iron door, bearing the insignia of a barbed crown. I quickly shed the dwarf’s clothing, relieved to be out of the bulky, smelly garments. Taking off the bow, I carefully fit the Witchwood arrow to the string. When the arrow was nocked, it began to throb even faster, as if its heartbeat raced in excitement.
And, standing at the last door in the Iron King’s tower, I hesitated. Could I really do this, kill a living creature? I wasn’t a warrior like Ash or a brilliant trickster like Puck. I wasn’t smart like Grim, and I certainly didn’t have the power of my father, Oberon. I was just me, Meghan Chase, an ordinary high school student. Nothing special.
No. The voice in my head was mine, and it wasn’t. You’re more than that. You’re the daughter of Oberon and Melissa Chase. You’re the key to preventing a faery war. Friend of Puck; sister to Ethan; beloved of Ash: you are much more than you think. You have everything you need. All that is left is to step forward.
Step forward. I could do that. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door open.
I stood at the entrance of an enormous garden, the door creaking as it swung away from me. The smooth iron walls surrounding me were topped with jagged spines, silhouetted black against the open sky. Trees lined a stony path, but they were all made of metal, their branches twisted and sharp. Birds watched me from the steel limbs. When they fluttered their wings, it sounded like knives scraping against one another.
In the center of the garden, where all the paths converged, a fountain stood. Made not of marble or plaster, but of different-size gearheads, turning sluggishly with the water’s flow. I squinted and looked closer. On the bottom cog, lying on his back as the gear slowly spun him around, was a figure.
It was Ash.
I didn’t scream his name. I didn’t run to him, though every fiber in my body was telling me to do so. Forcing myself to be calm, I looked around the garden, wary of traps and sudden ambushes. But there weren’t many places for attackers to hide; except for the metal trees and a few thorny vines, the garden seemed empty.
Only when I’d made sure I was alone did I sprint across the stony ground to the fountain.
Don’t be dead. Please, don’t be dead. My heart plummeted when I saw him. He’d been chained to the cog, wrapped in metal links, spinning round and round in an endless circle. One leg dangled over the edge; the other was folded beneath him. His shirt had been ripped to shreds, the skin a shocking contrast of pale flesh and vivid red claw marks. The flesh where the chains touched him was raw and crimson. He didn’t appear to be breathing.
Hands trembling, I drew the sword. The first slash shattered most of the links, the second cracked the gearhead nearly in two. The chains slid away, and the cog squealed as it ground to a halt. I dropped the blade and pulled Ash off the fountain, his body limp and cold in my arms.
“Ash.” I cradled him in my lap, beyond tears, beyond anything but an awful, yawning emptiness. “Ash, come on.” I shook him a little. “Don’t do this to me. Open your eyes. Wake up. Please…”
His body was limp, unresponsive. I bit my lip hard enough to taste blood, and buried my face in his neck. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, and now I did start to cry. Tears ran from my closed eyelids and down his clammy skin. “I’m so sorry. I wish you hadn’t come. I wish I never agreed to that stupid contract. This is my fault, all of it. Puck and the dryad and Grim, and now you—” It was getting hard to speak, my voice was so choked with tears. “I’m sorry,” I murmured again, for lack of anything else to say. “Sorry, so sorry—”