“After you, your highness. Diode, go with the princess to make sure everyone knows to follow her.”
“What about you?”
“I’m staying topside to make sure everyone is through.” Glitch nodded to the stocky dwarf with the mechanical arm, waiting stoically behind us. “When everyone is down, Torque and I will follow and seal the tunnel behind us. We’re likely not coming back here again.”
“I’ll worry about blocking our escape, you worry about not getting us lost down there.” Glitch handed me a flashlight and pointed to the hole. “Now move, before they’re at our door!”
Switching on the flashlight, I descended into the tunnels. The musty darkness closed around me, smelling of dust, mold, and wet rock, strange and familiar at the same time. Ash dropped next to me, then Puck, and then Diode, his glowing numbered eyes seeming to float in the darkness. I wondered where Grimalkin was, and hoped he got out safely. The hacker elf swept a nervous gaze around the tunnels, eyes spinning anxiously. “Are you sure you know the way?” he muttered, trying to sound confident, but it came out as more of a squeak. I swept my flashlight around the underground passageway and smiled in relief. Everything was familiar. I knew exactly where to go.
“Diode, start sending them down. Tell everyone to follow me.”
I stepped forward, and the rebels began dropping through the trapdoor, lanterns and flashlights swaying in the darkness. At first, it felt strange, being at the head of a huge army, feeling their eyes on my back as I led them through the tunnels. But soon, the crunch of feet and the wavering lights behind me faded into background noise, until I almost didn’t notice them.
Several minutes later, a boom rocked the passages behind us, shaking the floor and raining dust on everyone. Diode squawked in fear, Puck braced himself against a wall, and Ash grabbed my arm, holding me steady as I staggered.
“What was that?” the hacker elf cried as the dust finally cleared. Coughing, I waved my hand in front of my face and looked back at the rebels, getting to their feet and looking around nervously.
I shared a glance with Ash and Puck. “Glitch must’ve collapsed the tunnels,”
I said, picking up the flashlight I’d dropped. “It was the only way to keep the false king’s forces from following us.”
“What?” Diode looked back fearfully, eyes whirling. “I thought he was just going to seal the doors. So, we can’t return to base?”
“He never meant to come back here,” I murmured, shining the light beam into the maze before us. “There’s no turning back now. The only choice is to move on.”
TIME HAD NO MEANING in the sunless corridors of the packrat tunnels. We might’ve been traveling for hours, or days. The tunnels all looked the same: dark, eerie, filled with strange odds and ends, like an abandoned computer monitor, or the severed head of a doll. After the explosion, Glitch would join me at the head of the march every so often, if only to make sure I still knew where I was going. After about the sixth time, he began to get on my nerves.
“Yes, I still know where I’m going!” I snapped as he emerged beside me yet again, cutting him off before he could say anything. Ash walked on my other side, silent and protective, but I caught him rolling his eyes as Glitch came up. The rebel leader scowled. “Relax, your highness. I wasn’t going to ask this time.”
“Aw, that’s a shame,” Puck said, falling into step beside him. “You’re gonna make me lose my bet with ice-boy. Come on, be a sport. Say it one more time, for me?”
“What I was going to ask,” Glitch continued, ignoring Puck, “is how much longer till we’re out? My troops are getting tired—we can’t keep this up much longer without a break.”
I frowned and looked at Ash. “How long have we been walking?”
He shrugged. “Hard to tell. A day, perhaps. Maybe longer.”
“Really?” It didn’t seem that long to me. I didn’t feel tired. In fact, the longer we traveled, the more energy I had—the same kind of energy that had drawn me to Machina’s tree. But this was a darker power, bitter and ancient, and I suddenly knew where it was coming from.
“We must be getting close to Ferrum’s chamber,” I muttered, and Glitch’s eyebrows rose.
“Ferrum? The old king Ferrum?”
“You know about him?”
“I helped Machina overthrow him.” Glitch was staring at me in disbelief. “I led the charge to the throne room with Virus and Ironhorse. You mean to tell me that he’s still alive?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Not anymore. He was here when I first came to the Iron Realm, on the way to get my brother back. The packrats still worshipped him, but he was terrified Machina would find him again. I think he finally faded away, and the packrats moved on when he died.”
“Huh.” Glitch shook his head in wonder. “I can’t believe the old coot stayed alive for so long. If I had known about him, you can bet I would’ve searched every tunnel in the Iron Realm until I found him and put him out of his misery.”
I looked at him in horror. “Why? He seemed harmless to me. Just a sad, angry old man.”
“You don’t know what he was like before.” Glitch’s eyes narrowed. “You weren’t there when he was king. Ferrum was paranoid, terrified that someone would try to take his crown away. I was one of the newest lieutenants, but Ironhorse told me that with every new Iron fey that appeared, Ferrum grew more afraid and angry. It would’ve been best if he had stepped down, handed the throne to a successor. He was old and obsolete, and we all knew it. In this realm, the old move out to make room for the new. But Ferrum refused to give up his power, even though his bitterness was corrupting the land around him. Machina pleaded with him to reconsider his right to rule, to step down gracefully and hand the responsibility to someone else.”
“Ferrum told me Machina took his throne out of a lust for power, because he wanted it for himself.”
Glitch snorted. “Machina was one of Ferrum’s strongest supporters. The rest of us—me, Virus, and Ironhorse—were getting tired of Ferrum’s threats, of the constant fear that one of us could be next. But Machina told us to be patient, and we were more loyal to him than our crazy king. Then the day came when Ferrum’s jealous paranoia finally got the better of him, and he tried to kill Machina, stabbing at him when his back was turned. His last mistake, I’m afraid. Machina realized Ferrum was no longer fit to rule and gathered his own supporters to take the king off the throne. We were only too happy to comply.”
I felt dazed. Everything I thought I knew about Machina was wrong.
“But…Machina still wanted to take over the Nevernever,” I protested. “He wanted to eradicate the old faeries and make a kingdom of Iron fey.”
“Machina was ever the strategist.” Glitch shrugged, unconcerned. “He knew Ferrum’s way—hiding in fear from the courts and hoping they wouldn’t see us—
wasn’t going to work much longer. The Iron Kingdom was growing faster than ever. We couldn’t hide anymore. Sooner or later, the courts would find out, and then what? What do you think would happen when they discovered a whole kingdom of faeries born from the very thing that could kill them? Machina knew there would be a war. He figured it would be best if we struck first.”
“Too bad Meghan had to ruin it for you,” Puck added, smirking at the back of Glitch’s head. Glitch turned to him and matched his sneer.
“It won’t matter if the false king conquers the Nevernever now, will it?” he countered. “I’ll still be here, and so will all the Iron fey, but you oldbloods will become a thing of the past. And not even her highness will be able to stop it.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I snapped, turning on him. “I’ll stop the false king, just like I did Machina.”
“Glad to hear it.” Glitch leveled a stare at me. “But did you ever think about how you’re going to stop the spread of the Iron Realm? Just because the false king is gone doesn’t mean we’re going away as well, princess. The Iron Kingdom will continue to grow and change the Nevernever, and in the end the courts will come after us anyway. I agree that, right now, we have to stop the false king, but you’re only delaying the inevitable.”
“There has to be a way,” I muttered. “You’re all faeries, you use glamour the same way. You’re just a little different, that’s all.”
“We’re not,” Glitch said firmly, “a little different. Our glamour kills oldbloods. Summer magic is deadly to us, as well. If you think we can hold hands and be friends, princess, you’re only fooling yourself. But we need to stop soon, or this army will be too exhausted to fight anything.”
I shook my head. “No, we have to keep moving. At least until we’re out of the tunnels.”
“Because…” I closed my eyes. “He’s almost there.”
All three faeries stared at me. “How do you know?” Ash asked softly.
“I can feel him.” Goose bumps rose along my arms, and I hugged myself, shivering. “I can feel the land…crying out where he passes. It feels…” I paused, searching for words. “It feels like someone is dragging a blade across the surface, leaving a scar behind. I’ve been able to sense him ever since we passed Ferrum’s old chamber. The false king…he’s getting close to the wyldwood now, and he’s waiting for me.”
THE LAST NIGHT
Eventually, we came out of the tunnels.
The night was remarkably clear as we set up camp, a tattered, ragtag army pitching tents on the edge of a bubbling magma lake, the air smelling of sulphur and brimstone. I didn’t want to camp so close to the lake but Glitch overrode me, saying the smell would mask our presence, and besides his army was exhausted thanks to my forced march through the packrat tunnels. Even Ash and Puck were tired; they wouldn’t say anything, but the gaunt looks and pale faces told me they weren’t feeling the best. Their amulets were almost used up. The Iron Realm was finally taking its toll.
“Go lie down,” I told them both, once Glitch had left to help the army pitch camp. “You’re both exhausted, and we’re not doing anything else tonight. Get some rest.”
Puck snorted. “My, aren’t we bossy today,” he said, though it lacked his usual energy. “Give a girl an army and it goes straight to her head.” He yawned then, scrubbing his scalp. “Right, then. If anyone needs me, I’ll be passed out in my tent, trying to forget where I am. Oh, look, demon fey, lake of liquid hot magma—does this remind you of anything?” He grimaced, giving me a weak grin. “When I said I’d follow you to hell and back, I wasn’t trying to be literal, princess. Ah, well.” He lifted one hand in a cheerful wave. “See you tomorrow, lovebirds.”
“What about you?” Ash asked as Puck sauntered off, whistling loudly.