“Well, that’s nice, but I have to get back to work.” The hacker elf backed up, nearly tripping over his own feet, and gave me a shaky smile. “I have to…be somewhere else now. It was…um…goodbye.” Clutching his cables, he fled into the ruins.
“Did you two hear that?” I asked as Puck and Ash appeared behind me. Ash made a thoughtful noise and crossed his arms.
“Three miles due west,” he murmured, gazing after the fleeing elf. “Not far, but do you think it’s wise to let him go? He might run straight to Glitch.”
“Then we should move fast.” I checked my sword and my armor, making sure all were in place. “We’re getting out of here, now.”
Puck’s eyes gleamed. “Need a spectacular diversion of some sort, princess?”
“No, let’s not burn any bridges before we have to.” I started into the ruins, looking for a certain flight of stairs that would take us where we needed to go.
“We might want to come back here, and I don’t want to fight a horde of angry rebels because you blew up their base or something. We’re sneaking out nice and quiet.”
“Um, but if we’re sneaking out, shouldn’t we be looking for the back door?”
“Hide.” Ash suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a pillar, crushing me to his chest, as Puck dove behind a rock pile. A split second later, Glitch appeared on the far side of the room, with Diode at his heels.
“I don’t know, sir,” Diode was saying. “But it seemed suspicious. You don’t think she’s planning an escape, do you? She told me she wasn’t.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Glitch said. I could feel Ash’s heart against my palm, though he had gone perfectly still, hardly breathing. “You haven’t met a human in your life, Diode, so you don’t know that they’re all capable of lying through their teeth.”
Diode gasped, and Glitch blew out a long breath, running his hands through his spines. “It might not be anything,” he said, as they continued walking. I held my breath as they passed behind our pillar. “But go ahead and find her, all the same. The last thing we want is that girl throwing herself under the false king’s wheels.”
“Of course, sir.” Their voices faded as they continued into the ruins and out of sight.
Puck popped up from behind the rubble. “If we’re gonna leave, we should do it soon. Like, now. Before socket-head figures it all out.”
“This way,” I hissed, and we hurried on.
After a few more close calls, I finally saw the base of the stairs to the tallest landing, the one that gazed out over the plateau. Unfortunately, it was also guarded by a burly dwarf with a mechanical arm and an iron-tipped spear. Several hacker elves crouched nearby, repairing wires and other electronics.
“Want me to take them out?” Ash muttered as we crouched in the shadows.
“Yeah, that wouldn’t be noisy at all,” Puck whispered back. I glared at the dwarf and the Iron fey, the only obstacles to reaching our destination. And then, I saw the glint of a glowing green eye in the ruins above, the curve of a neon smile. Razor! He would distract them, I bet. If I could just make him hear me…
As if reading my mind, the gremlin suddenly turned and looked right at us. I caught my breath. Well, why not? Razor, if you can hear this, I need to get past that dwarf onto the stairs. Could you maybe cause a diversion or someth—
The gremlin grinned madly, and then with a screech that sounded almost maniacal, scuttled from his hiding place in a flurry of sparks, drawing the attention of everything in the room. Laughing, he dangled overhead, seeming to mock them all, before zipping out of sight. Shouts and curses filled the ruins as the rebels, dwarf included, dropped everything to pursue the gremlin.
“Well, that’s convenient,” Puck mused. “I really need to get a few of those things.”
“Come on,” I snapped, and we bolted up the stairs, still hearing the shouts of the rebels below as Razor led them on a wild-goose—or gremlin—chase. We reached the landing without opposition, the wind whipping my hair as we stepped onto the ledge.
Puck gave me a look of mock-alarm as I gazed up the tower wall, searching for our way out. “Um, how exactly were you planning on getting out this way, princess? Fly?”
“Yes.” I finally spotted what I was looking for, hanging off the wall near the very top, a cluster of gliders sleeping in the sun. I whistled softly, and they roused themselves, turning their insect heads to peer down at us. Puck, following my gaze, made a revolted noise in the back of his throat.
“You’re kidding me. You want us to fly out of here on those things? Um…how about I just turn into a bird and follow you—”
“No. You heard what Mab said.” I beckoned to the gliders, and they buzzed sleepily. “Using glamour could shatter your amulet. We want to conserve it as much as possible.”
Puck grimaced. “I think I might make an exception for this, princess. Not that I don’t enjoy the thought of being carried around by a big metal bug, but…” He backed up a step as the gliders began crawling down the wall. “Oh, wonderful. They’re looking at me weird, princess.”
“What’s the matter, Goodfellow?” Ash smirked, crossing his arms as the gliders landed on the platform, watching us with huge, multifaceted eyes. “Afraid of a few bugs?”
“Bugs are creepy.” Puck made a face at one of the gliders, wincing as it buzzed at him. “Giant metal bugs that look at me weird belong in horror flicks.”
He sneered at Ash. “Besides, I don’t see you stepping up to the plate, prince.”
“I just want to make this moment last as long as I can.”
“Guys! There’s no time for this!” I glared at them, and they stopped, looking guilty. “This is our only way out. Just follow my lead and do what I do.”
I walked to the edge of the landing and looked down. Yesterday, gazing at that vast drop made my stomach want to crawl up my throat. Now, my heart raced with excitement, and I spread my arms.
For a moment, nothing happened, and I was afraid the gliders wouldn’t respond, after all. But then I heard the familiar buzz of wings, and a second later the glider landed on my shoulders, curling its copper legs around me.
“Creeeeeepy,” Puck sang. I turned to glare at him.
“Shut up and listen. You use the front legs to steer. Try to relax and you’ll be fine.” I ignored Puck’s dubious look and faced forward again. “Here we go,” I muttered, and dove off the edge.
The wind caught the glider’s wings and sent us both shooting upward, and my adrenaline soared in response. I thought I heard Puck’s yell of disbelief as I spiraled up, and grinned wildly, imagining his face if I showed him what the glider could really do. But there was no time for the crazy dives and aerial maneuvers of the night before, though I could feel the glider’s excitement as well, like a flighty racehorse eager to run. I did a couple of backward loops, just to get it out of our systems, before circling back to see if the boys needed further encouragement. To my surprise both Puck and Ash had managed to take off, and both were gliding toward me, though Puck did look a bit green as I pulled alongside them.
“Are you two all right?” I called, trying not to grin. Puck gave me a weak thumbs-up.
“Fabulous, princess!” His glider buzzed loudly, and he winced. “Though I’d much rather be flying on my own wings. This isn’t natural. Which way from here?”
Ash pointed toward the distant horizon. “Due west is that way,” he said, and I nodded. Without even waiting for me to steer it, my glider abruptly veered off to the right, and we set a course for Rowan and the setting sun.
After several minutes of flying, I spotted a dark blot shimmering like a mirage on the otherwise flat landscape. As we drew closer, I saw that it was a stand of trees, still alive, an oasis in the middle of the blasted wasteland. But circling overhead, I also saw that they were dying, their trunks streaked with metal and most of their leaves already bright and metallic. A few sparse limbs bore leaves that were still alive, and they matched the branch I’d found at the rebel base. This was our rowan stand, all right. If the note was to be trusted, Ash’s traitor brother was here.
We landed our gliders, which buzzed anxiously about being left, and entered the grove cautiously, weapons drawn. The trees shivered in the wind, metallic branches scraping together like knives, making chills run up my spine. Rowan stepped out of the trees ahead, a lean figure in white, his horribly burned face making my stomach clench. Two Iron knights flanked him, their jointed, segmented armor bearing a new symbol. Instead of a barbed-wire crown, the symbol of an iron fist now adorned their breast-plates, punching up toward the sky. One of the knights was a stranger, unfamiliar to me. But I recognized the second immediately; the face above the breastplate could’ve been Ash’s, except for the scar marring his cheek and the deadness in his gray eyes.
“Whoa, I’m seeing double,” Puck muttered, blinking rapidly. “Long-lost brother of yours, ice-boy? Were you separated at birth or something?”
“That’s Tertius,” I whispered as we continued to approach. “He was with Ironhorse the first time we went into the Iron Realm. I saw him again at the Winter Palace, when he stole the Scepter of the Seasons and killed Sage.” Ash clenched his fists at that, the air around him turning cold. “Don’t underestimate him. He might look like Ash, but he’s an Iron knight through and through.”
“Yeah, but…” Puck looked from Tertius to Ash and back again. “That doesn’t tell me why he looks like ice-boy’s clone.”
“Because,” Rowan answered, his smooth voice carrying through the trees,
“he is a clone of my dear little brother. The former king, Machina, created his knights to be his elite guard, so he fashioned them in the images of those at court. You should have seen my double—ugly bastard. I did him a favor and put him out of his misery. Sage’s twin, unfortunately, was gone before we could ever meet.” He stopped a few yards away and bowed, the two knights stopping just behind each shoulder. “Hello, again, princess. I’m very glad you could make it. And with your two lapdogs in tow, as well. I’m impressed. That must have taken some serious magic.” His blue eyes flickered to Ash, gleaming dangerously, and he smiled. “That’s a lovely necklace, little brother, but it won’t save you in the end. The only way to survive the Iron Realm is to become part of it. You’re only buying yourself some time with that bauble. Once it breaks, as I’m sure it will, this realm will swallow you whole.”
“It will buy me enough time to kill you,” Ash replied. “Which I’m happy to do right now, if you like.”
“Now, now.” Rowan waggled a finger at him. “None of that. We’re not here to fight. I come here to offer a proposal that could potentially end this war. Don’t you want to stop the war, Meghan Chase?”