Ash raised his head and stared the other faery in the eye. “Bold words for someone who stood aside and wrestled a girl while his brothers fought for him.”
The knight backhanded him. I cried out in fury and started forward, but the knight behind me grabbed my arm. “Leave him alone, Quintus,” he said in a calm voice.
Quintus sneered. “Feeling sorry for him, Tertius? Maybe some brotherly affection for your twin here?”
“We’re not supposed to speak to the oldbloods,” Tertius replied in the same cool tone. “You know that. Or should I inform Ironhorse?”
Quintus spat on the ground. “You were always weak, Tertius,” he snarled. “Too softhearted to be made of iron. You’re a disgrace to the brotherhood.” He spun on a heel and marched up the tunnel, the last knight following behind. Their boots rang loudly on the stone floor, then faded into silence.
“Jerk,” I muttered as the remaining knight maneuvered me against the post. “Your name’s Tertius, right?”
He unlocked a shackle and wound the chain around the beam, not looking at me. “Yes.”
“Help us,” I pleaded. “You’re not like them, I can feel it. Please, I have to rescue my brother and get him out of here. I’ll make a deal with you, if that’s what it takes. Please, help us.”
For a moment, he met my eyes. I was struck again by how much he resembled Ash. His eyes were gunmetal-gray instead of silver, and the scar made him look older, but he had that same intense, honorable face. He paused, and for a moment, I dared to hope. But then he snapped the cuff around my wrist and stepped away, his eyes darkening to black.
“I’m a Knight of the Iron Crown,” he said, his voice as hard as steel. “I will not betray my brothers, or my king.”
He turned and walked away without looking back.
IN THE FLICKERING DARKNESS of the tunnel, I heard Ash’s raspy breathing, the shift of gravel as he sank into a sitting position. “Ash?” I called softly, my voice echoing down the shafts. “You all right?”
Silence for a moment. When Ash finally spoke, his voice was so low I could barely hear it. “Sorry, princess,” he murmured, almost to himself. “Looks like I won’t be able to uphold our contract after all.”
“Don’t give up,” I told him, feeling like a hypocrite as I struggled with my own despair. “We’ll get out of this somehow. We just have to keep our heads.” A thought came to me, and I lowered my voice. “Can’t you freeze the chains until they shatter, like you did in the factory?”
A low, humorless chuckle. “Right now, it’s taking everything I have not to pass out,” Ash muttered, sounding pained. “If you have any of that power the Elder Dryad was talking about, now would be the time to use it.”
I nodded. What did we have to lose? Closing my eyes, I concentrated on feeling the glamour around us, trying to remember what Grimalkin had taught me.
Nothing. Except for a flicker of raw determination from Ash, there were no emotions to draw from, no hopes or dreams or anything. Everything here was dead, devoid of life, passionless. The iron fey were too machinelike—cold, logical, and calculating—and their world reflected that.
Refusing to give up, I pushed deeper, trying to get past the banal surface. This had been the Nevernever once. There had to be something left untouched by Machina’s influence.
I felt a pulse of life, somewhere deep below. A lone tree, poisoned and dying, but still clinging to life. Its branches were slowly turning to metal, but the roots, and the heart of the tree, were not yet corrupted. It stirred to my presence, a tiny piece of the Nevernever in the void of nothingness. But before I could do anything, shuffling footsteps broke my concentration, and the link faded away.
I opened my eyes. The light in the tunnel had gone out, leaving us in pitch blackness. I heard creatures moving toward us, surrounding us, and I couldn’t see a thing. My mind jumped to all sorts of terrifying conclusions: giant rats, huge cockroaches, massive underground spiders. I almost fainted when something patted my arm, but then I heard the low babble of familiar voices.
A yellowish beam clicked on in the darkness: a flashlight. It illuminated the curious, wrinkled faces of a half-dozen pack rats, blinking in the sudden light. Surprised, I stared at them as they chittered at me in their odd language. Several surrounded Ash, pulling at his sleeves.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered. They jabbered nonsense and tugged on my clothes, as if trying to drag me away. “Are you trying to help?”
The pack rat with the tricycle stepped forward. He pointed at me, then at the back of the room. In the flashlight beam, I saw the mouth of another tunnel, nearly invisible in the shadows. It was only partly formed, as if the miners had started digging only to abandon it. A way out? My heart leaped. The pack rat jibbered impatiently and beckoned me forward.
“I can’t,” I told him, rattling my chain. “I can’t move.”
He chattered at the rest of them, and they shuffled forward. One by one, they reached behind them, to the lumps of trash on their backs, and began pulling things out.
“What are they doing?” Ash muttered.
I couldn’t begin to answer. One of the pack rats produced an electric drill, showing it to the leader, who shook his head. Another pulled out a butterfly knife, but the leader declined that, too, as well as a lighter, a hammer, and a round alarm clock. Then one of the smaller pack rats chittered excitedly and stepped forward, holding something long and metallic.
A pair of bolt cutters.
The lead pack rat jabbered and pointed. But at the same time, I heard the clank of steel boots coming down the tunnel, and the scuttling of thousands of claws on rock. My stomach twisted. The knights were coming back, and so were the gremlins.
“Hurry!” I urged, as the pack rat waddled over and began sawing at the chain. Lights appeared in the distance, bobbing along the ground; gremlins with lanterns or flashlights. Laughter drifted into the room, and my stomach churned. Hurry! I thought, furious with the pack rat’s slow progress. We’re not going to make it! They’ll be here any second!
I felt the snap of links as they parted, and I was free.
Grabbing the bolt cutters, I raced over to Ash. The lights moved closer and closer, and the hissing of gremlins could be heard down the tunnel. I inserted the chain between the metal jaws and squeezed the handles, but the tool was rusty and hard to use. Snarling curses, I gripped the handles and pushed.
“Leave me,” Ash muttered as I strained to close the jaws. “I won’t be able to help, and I’ll only slow you down. Just go.”
“I’m not leaving you,” I panted, gritting my teeth and pushing with all my might.
“I’m not leaving you!” I snapped, fighting angry tears. Stupid chain! Why wouldn’t it break already? I threw my whole weight against it, sawing with a fury born of fear.
“Remember when I told you about your weakness?” Ash murmured, craning his head to look at me. Though his eyes were hard, glazed over with pain, his voice was gentle. “You have to make that choice now. What is most important to you?”
“Shut up!” Tears blinded me, and I blinked them away. “You can’t ask me to make that decision. You’re important to me, too, dammit. I’m not leaving you behind, so just shut up.”
The first wave of gremlins entered the tunnel and shrieked in alarm when they saw me. With a snarl of fear and terror, I gave the bolt cutters a final jerk, and the chain finally snapped. Ash pulled himself to his feet as the gremlins howled with outrage and surged forward.
We ran for the hidden tunnel, following the pack rats as they scuttled through. The corridor was low and narrow; I had to duck my head to avoid the ceiling, and the walls scraped my arms as we fled. Behind us, gremlins poured through the opening like ants, skittering along the walls and ceiling, hissing as they pursued.
Ash suddenly stopped. Turning to face the horde, he raised a pickax like a baseball bat, bracing himself against the wall. I gave a start; he must’ve snatched it from the crates, right before we reached the tunnel. The broken chains, still dangling from his wrists, trembled as his arms shook. The gremlins halted a few yards away, their eyes bright as they analyzed this new threat. As one they began edging forward.
“Ash!” I called. “What are you doing? Come on!”
“Meghan.” Ash’s voice, despite the pain below the surface, was calm. “I hope you find your brother. If you see Puck again, tell him I regret having to step out of our duel.”
“Ash, no! Don’t do this!”
I felt him smile. “You made me feel alive again,” he murmured.
Screeching, the gremlins attacked.
Ash smashed two of them senseless with the pickax, ducked as another leaped at his head, and was overwhelmed. They swarmed over him, clinging to his legs and arms, biting and clawing. He staggered and dropped to a knee, and they skittered up his back, until I could no longer see him through the writhing mass of gremlins. Still, Ash fought on; with a snarl, he surged back to his feet, sending several gremlins flying only to have a dozen more take their place.
“Meghan, go!” His voice was a hoarse rasp as he slammed a gremlin into the wall. “Now!”
Choking on tears, I turned and fled. I followed the beckoning pack rats until the tunnel split and branched off in several directions. A pack rat pulled something from his lump and waved it at the leader. I gasped when I saw that it was a stick of dyn**ite. The leader snarled something, and another pack rat scuttled forward with a lighter.
I couldn’t help but look back, just in time to see Ash finally pulled under the sea of gremlins and lost from view. The gremlins screeched in triumph and flowed toward us.
The fuse sputtered to life. The lead pack rat hissed at me and pointed to the tunnels, where the rest of them were vanishing. Tears flowing down my cheeks, I followed, and the pack rat holding the dyn**ite flung it toward the oncoming gremlins.
The boom shook the ceiling. Dirt and rocks rained down on me, filling the air with grit. I coughed and sagged against the wall, waiting for the chaos to die down. When everything was still, I looked up to see that the entrance to the tunnel had caved in. The pack rats were moaning softly. One of their own hadn’t made it through in time.
Sagging down the wall, I pulled my knees to my chest and joined them in their grieving, feeling I’d left my heart in the tunnel where Ash had fallen.
The Iron King
For several minutes, I SAT there, too numb to even cry. I couldn’t believe that Ash was really dead. I kept staring at the caved-in wall, half expecting him to somehow, miraculously, push through the rubble, bruised and bloody, but alive.
How long I sat there, I don’t know. But eventually, the lead pack rat tugged gently on my sleeve. His eyes, solemn and sad, met mine, before he turned away and beckoned me to follow. With one final look at the cave-in behind us, I trailed them into the tunnels.
We walked for hours, and gradually, the tunnels turned into natural caverns, dripping with water and stalactites. The pack rats loaned me a flashlight, and as I shined it about the caves, I saw that the floor was littered with strange items, a fender here, a toy robot there. It seemed we were heading deep into the pack rats’ nest, for the farther we went, the more junk lay strewn about.