Machina staggered back, his face contorted with agony. Lightning crackled around the blade in his chest. His cables thrashed wildly, striking Ash and hurling him into a metal tree with a sickening crunch. Ash collapsed against the trunk as Machina straightened, giving him a look of white rage.
Reaching down, the Iron King grasped the hilt and pulled, sliding the blade out of his chest. Lightning sizzled, melting the ice around the hole, and thin wires wove themselves around the wound, knitting it together. Machina tossed the sword away and looked at me, his black eyes sparking with fury.
“I am losing patience with you, my dear.” One of his cables shot forward, coiling around Ash’s throat and lifting him off his feet. Ash choked and struggled weakly as Machina dangled him several feet overhead. Ethan wailed in his cage. “Rule with me, or let them die. Make your choice.”
I sank to my knees as my legs buckled, trembling. The stone floor was cold against my palms. What can I do? I thought desperately. How can I choose? Either way, people will die. I can’t allow that. I won’t.
The ground pulsed under my hands. I closed my eyes and let my consciousness flow into the earth, searching for that spark of life. I felt the trees in Machina’s court, their branches lifeless and dead, but their roots and hearts uncorrupted. Just like last time. I gave them a nudge and felt them respond, writhing to meet me, pushing up through the dirt, like the trees of the Summer Court had for Oberon with the chimera.
Like father, like daughter.
I took a deep breath, and pulled.
The ground rumbled, and suddenly, live roots broke through the surface, pushing up through the pavement, snapping and coiling about. Machina gave a shout of alarm, and the roots flew to meet him, wrapping around his body, entangling the cables. He roared and lashed out, lightning streaking from his hands, blasting away the wood. Roots and iron cables twined around one another like maddened snakes, swirling in a hypnotic dance of fury.
Ash dropped from the cables, hitting the ground by a metal tree, winded and dazed but still trying to get to his feet, staggering after his weapon. I saw a strip of pale wood beneath the trunk—one half of the snapped Witchwood arrow—and lunged after it.
A cable wrapped around my leg, jerking me off my feet. I twisted around to see Machina glaring at me, his arm outstretched as he fought the web of roots. The cable tightened around my leg and dragged me toward him. I screamed and clawed at the ground, tearing my nails and bloodying my fingers, but I couldn’t stop. The furious face of the Iron King loomed closer.
Ash’s blade slashed down once more, cutting into the cable, severing it. More cables whipped toward him, but the Winter prince stood his ground, sword flashing as iron tentacles writhed around us.
“Go,” he snarled, slashing the end of a cable out of the air. “I’ll hold them back. Go!”
I leaped to my feet, rushing for the trunk and the arrow beneath. My hand closed over the wood and I spun back, only to see a cable slice through Ash’s defenses and slam into his shoulder, staking him to the ground. Ash howled, swinging his sword weakly, but another cable knocked it from his grasp.
I charged the Iron King, dodging cables and snaking roots. For a moment, his attention was riveted on Ash, but then his gaze snapped to me, lightning flashing in the depths of his eyes. Shrieking a battle cry, I lunged.
Just as I reached him, something slammed into my back, driving the breath from me. I couldn’t move, and realized that one of the cables had stabbed me from behind. Strangely, there was no pain.
Machina drew me to him as roots and cables waged their war overhead. Everything else faded away, and there was just us.
“I would have made you a queen,” he muttered, reaching a hand to me. The roots circling his torso, pinning his other arm, tightened around him, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I would have given you everything. Why reject such an offer?”
My hand tightened on the Witchwood, feeling a faint beat of life still within. “Because,” I whispered, raising my arm, “I already have everything I need.”
I drove my arm forward, sinking the arrow into his chest.
Machina’s lips gaped in a soundless scream. He arched his head back, still screaming, and green shoots erupted from his mouth, spreading down his neck. A strange pulse of energy, like an electrical jolt, coursed through my body, making my muscles spasm. The cable flung me away; I hit the ground and bit back a shriek as pain lanced up my spine. Clawing myself upright, I looked around, grabbed the sword, and rushed to Ethan’s cage. One stroke of the ice blade smashed the door open, and I hugged my brother to me, feeling him sob into my hair.
“Meghan!” Ash staggered toward me, holding his shoulder, dark blood streaming down his skin. Behind him, the door burst open, and dozens of knights poured inside. For a moment, they froze in shock, staring at their king in the center of the garden.
Machina still writhed in his prison, but weakly. Branches grew from his chest, his cables turning into vines that bloomed with tiny white flowers. As we watched, he split apart, as the trunk of a brand-new oak burst from his chest, rising into the air. The Bluetooth phone dropped from the branches and lay, winking, at the roots of the tree.
“Wow,” I whispered into the silence.
The knights turned on us with a roar. They rushed forward, but suddenly, the ground trembled. Rumblings filled the air as the iron throne began to collapse, shedding jagged shrapnel like scales. A tremor shook the ground, causing everyone to stagger.
Then, a huge chunk of the garden cracked and fell away, taking several knights with it into oblivion. More cracks appeared as the courtyard began to come apart. The knights howled and scattered, and screams rose into the air.
“The whole tower’s coming down!” Ash yelled, dodging a falling beam. “We have to get out of here, now!”
I ran to the iron archway, stumbling as more cracks slashed across the ground, and ducked through, only to reappear on the other side. Nothing happened. Despair rose up, and I gazed around wildly.
“Human,” said a familiar voice, and Grimalkin appeared, twitching his tail. I gaped at him, hardly believing my eyes. “This way. Hurry.”
“I thought you weren’t coming,” I gasped, following him across the garden to where two metal trees grew together, the trunks forming an archway between them. Grimalkin looked back at me and snorted.
“Trust you to take the hardest route possible,” he said, lashing his tail. “If you had only listened to me, I would have shown you an easier way. Now, hurry. This air is making me sick.”
A deafening roar shook the ground, and the garden crumbled away altogether. Clutching Ethan tightly, I dived between the trunks, Ash right on my heels. I felt the tingle of magic as we passed through the barrier, and realized I was falling, before everything went completely black.
I awoke slowly, a hard tile floor cold against my cheek. Wincing, I sat up, testing my body for any lingering pain. I was vaguely aware that there should be some; I remembered Machina stabbing me through the back with his iron cables, felt the blaze of agony as he ripped them from my flesh—but there was no pain. In fact, I felt better than I had in a long time, my senses buzzing with energy as I gazed around. I lay in a long, dim room filled with desks and computers. The school computer lab!
With a jerk, I sat up and looked around for my brother, wondering, for one heart-stopping instant, if everything had been a horrible dream. A moment later, I relaxed. Ethan lay under a nearby desk, his face peaceful, his breath slow and deep. I brushed a stray curl from his forehead and smiled, then got to my feet.
Ash was nowhere to be seen, but Grimalkin lay on a desk beneath a dingy window, purring in the sunlight coming through the glass. Careful not to disturb Ethan, I rose and joined him.
“There you are.” The cat yawned, cracking open one golden eye to stare at me. “I was beginning to think you would sleep forever. You snore, you know.”
I ignored that comment, hopping up on the desk beside him. “Where’s Ash?”
“Gone.” Grimalkin sat up and stretched, wrapping his tail around himself. “He took off earlier, before you woke up. He said he had some things to take care of. Told me to tell you not to wait for him.”
“Oh.” I let that sink in, not knowing what to feel. I could’ve been upset, angry, resentful that he left so suddenly, but all I felt was tired. And a little sad. “He was hurt pretty bad, Grim. Will he be all right?”
Grimalkin yawned, obviously unconcerned. I wasn’t reassured, but Ash was strong: strong enough to make it all the way to the heart of the Iron Kingdom and back. A lesser faery would’ve died. He almost did die. Had he been drawing glamour from me, in that desolate place? Or was it something else that enabled him to survive? I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to ask him.
After a moment, I turned to gaze around the room, marveling that the trod to the Iron Kingdom had been so close. Did one of the computers hide the path to Machina’s realm? Had we come flying out of a monitor, or had we just blipped into existence, like the gremlins?
“So.” I turned back to the cat. “You found us the path home. Congratulations. What do I owe you for this one? Another favor or life debt? My firstborn child?”
“No.” Grimalkin’s eyes slitted in amusement. “We will let this one go. This once.”
We sat in silence for a bit, enjoying the sunlight, content just to be alive. Still, as I watched Ethan, sleeping under the desk, a strange heaviness filled me, as if I was missing something. As if I’d forgotten something vitally important, back in Faery.
“So,” Grimalkin mused, licking his front paw, “what will you do now?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Take Ethan home, I guess. Go back to school. Try to get on with my life.” I thought of Puck, and a lump rose to my throat. School wouldn’t be the same without him. I hoped he was all right, and that I would see him again. I thought of Ash, and wondered if the prince of the Unseelie Court would consent to dinner and a movie.
“Hope springs eternal,” the cat muttered.
“Yeah.” I sighed, and we fell silent again.
“What I have been wondering,” Grimalkin went on, “is how Machina kidnapped your brother in the first place. He used a changeling, yes, but that wasn’t an iron faery. How did he make the switch, if it was not one of his own?”
I thought about it and frowned. “Somebody must’ve helped him,” I guessed.
Grimalkin nodded. “I would imagine so. Which means Machina had normal fey working for him as well, and now that he is gone, they will be none too happy with you.”
I shivered, feeling hope for a normal life slipping rapidly away. I imagined knives on the floor, my hair tied to the bedpost, missing items, and irate faeries lurking in my closet or under my bed, ready to pounce. I’d never be able to sleep again, that much was certain. I wondered how I would protect my family.
A groan came from the sleeping form in the corner. Ethan was waking up.
“Go on, then,” Grimalkin purred as I rose. “Take him home.”
I wanted to say thank-you, but there was no way I was putting myself even more in the cat’s debt. Instead, I went to gather Ethan, and we started across the room, weaving around desks and dark, silent computers. At the door, which was thankfully unlocked, I looked back to the window and the shaft of sunlight, but Grimalkin was no longer there.