At last, we entered a cathedral-like cave, where the ceiling soared up into blackness, and the walls were piled with mountains of trash, resembling the Wasteland in miniature.
In the center of the room, sitting on a throne made entirely of junk, was an old, old man. His skin was gray, and I don’t mean pale or ashen, but metallic-gray, mercury-gray. His white hair flowed past his feet, nearly touching the floor, as if he hadn’t moved from his chair in centuries. The pack rats shuffled around him, holding up various items, placing them at his feet. I saw my iPod among them. The old man smiled as the pack rats chittered and milled around him like eager dogs, then his pale green eyes looked up at me.
He blinked several times, as if he couldn’t trust what he was seeing. I held my breath. Was this Machina? Had the pack rats brought me straight to the Iron King? For an all-powerful ruler, I didn’t expect him to be so…old.
“Well,” he wheezed at last, “my subjects have brought me many curious things over the years, but I do believe this is the most unusual. Who are you, girl? Why are you here?”
“I…My name is Meghan, sir. Meghan Chase. I’m looking for my brother.”
“Your brother?” The old man looked at the pack rats, aghast. “I don’t recall you bringing home a child. What has gotten into you?”
The pack rats chittered, shaking their heads. The old man frowned at them as they jabbered and bounced around, then looked back at me. “My subjects tell me they have not encountered anyone except you and your friend out in the Wasteland. Why do you think your brother would be here?”
“I…” I stopped, gazing around at the dingy cavern, the pack rats, the frail old man. This couldn’t be right. “I’m sorry,” I continued, feeling stupid and confused, “but…are you Machina, the Iron King?”
“Ah.” The old man settled back, lacing his hands together. “Now I understand. Machina has your brother, yes? And you are on your way to rescue him.”
“Yes.” I relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief. “Then, I guess you’re not the Iron King?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” The old man smiled, and my guard went back up. He chuckled. “Worry not, child. I mean you no harm. But you would do well to abandon your plan to rescue your brother. Machina is too strong. No weapon can hurt him. You’d be throwing your life away.”
I remembered the Witchwood arrow, lying at the bottom of a ditch, and my heart constricted. “I know,” I whispered. “But I have to try. I’ve come this far. I’m not giving up now.”
“If Machina has stolen your brother, he must be waiting for you,” the old man said, leaning forward. “He wants you for something. I can feel the power in you, my girl, but it will not be enough. The Iron King is a master of manipulation. He will use you to further his own schemes, and you will not be able to resist. Go home, girl. Forget what you have lost and go home.”
“Forget?” I thought of my friends, who had sacrificed everything to see me this far. Puck. The Elder Dryad. Ash. “No,” I murmured, a lump forming in my throat. “I can never forget. Even if it’s hopeless, I have to go on. I owe everyone that much.”
“Foolish girl,” the old man growled. “I know more about Machina than anyone—his ways, his power, the way his mind works—and yet you still will not hear me. Very well. Rush to your doom, like everyone who came before you. You will see, as I did, far too late. Machina cannot be defeated. I only wish I’d listened to my councilors when they told me as much.”
“You tried to defeat him?” I stared, trying to imagine the frail old man fighting anyone and failing. “When? Why?”
“Because,” the old man explained patiently, “I was once the Iron King.
“My name is Ferrum,” the old man explained into my shocked silence. “As you no doubt noticed, I am old. Older than that whelp Machina, older than all of the iron fey. I was the first, you see, born of the forges, when mankind first began to experiment with iron. I rose from their imagination, from their ambition to conquer the world with a metal that could slice through bronze like paper. I was there when the world started to shift, when humans took their first steps out of the Dark Ages into civilization.
“For many years, I thought I was alone. But mankind is never satisfied—he is always reaching, always trying for something better. Others came, others like me, risen from these dreams of a new world. They accepted me as their king, and for centuries, we remained hidden, isolated from the rest of the fey. I realized, beyond a doubt, that if the courts knew of our existence, they would unite to destroy us.
“Then, with the invention of computers, the gremlins came, and the bugs. Given life by the fear of monsters lurking in machines, these were more chaotic than the other fey, violent and destructive. They spread to every part of the world. As technology became a driving force in every country, powerful new fey rose into existence. Virus. Glitch. And Machina, the most powerful of all. He was not content to sit and hide. His plan was conquest, to spread throughout the Nevernever like a virus, destroying all who opposed him. He was my First—my most powerful lieutenant—and we clashed on several occasions. My advisers told me to banish him, to imprison him, even to kill him. They were afraid of him, and rightly so, but I was blind to the danger.
“Of course, it was only a matter of time before Machina turned on me. Gathering an army of like-minded fey to his side, he attacked the fortress from within, slaughtering all who were loyal to me. My forces fought back, but we were old and obsolete, no match for Machina’s cruel army.
“In the end, I sat on my throne and watched him approach, knowing I was going to die. But, as Machina threw me to the floor, he laughed and said he would not kill me. He would let me fade away a bit at a time, becoming obscure and forgotten, until no one remembered my name or who I was. And, as he settled back upon my throne, I felt my power slip away and flow into Machina, acknowledging him as the new Iron King.
“So, now I live here.” Ferrum gestured to the cavern and the pack rats milling about. “In a forgotten cave, sitting on a throne made of garbage, king of the mighty trash collectors. A noble title, is it not?” His lips twisted into a bitter smile. “These creatures are very loyal, bringing me offerings that I cannot use, making me ruler of this junk heap. They have accepted me as their king, but what good is that? They cannot give me back my throne, and yet they are the only ones that keep me from fading away. I cannot die, but I can hardly bear to live, knowing what I’ve lost. What was stolen from me. And Machina is the one who designed it all!”
He slumped on his throne and buried his face in his hands. The pack rats shuffled forward, patting him, making worried chittering sounds. Watching him, I felt a surge of sympathy and disgust.
“I’ve lost things, too,” I said, over the sound of his quiet sobbing. “Machina has stolen a lot from me. But I’m not going to sit on a chair and wait for him. I’ll confront him, invincible or not, and somehow I’ll take back what’s mine. Or I’ll die trying. Either way, I’m not giving up.”
He stared at me through his fingers, his frail form shaking with tears. He sniffed and lowered his hands, his face sullen and dark.
“Go, then,” Ferrum whispered, shooing me away. “I cannot sway you. Perhaps a single unarmed girl will succeed where an entire army has failed.” He laughed then, bitter and petulant, and I felt a flicker of annoyance. “Good luck to you, foolish one. If you will not listen to me, you are welcome here no longer. My subjects will take you under his fortress, through the secret tunnels that honeycomb the land. It’s the quickest way to rush to your destruction. Now, go. I am through with you.”
I didn’t bow. I didn’t thank him for his help. I only turned and followed the pack rats out of the cave, feeling the hateful glare of the deposed king on my back.
MORE TUNNELS. THE BRIEF respite with the last Iron King wasn’t enough to stave off my exhaustion. We rested infrequently, and I caught what little sleep I could. The pack rats gave me some strange mushrooms to chew on, tiny white things that glowed in the dark and tasted like mold, but allowed me to see in pitch blackness as if it were twilight. This was a good thing, because my flashlight eventually flickered and died, and no one offered fresh batteries.
I lost track of time. All the caverns and tunnels seemed to meld together into one giant, impossible maze. I knew that, even if I did get into Machina’s fortress and rescue Ethan, I wouldn’t be getting out the same way.
The tunnel fell away, and suddenly I stood on a stone bridge across a vast precipice, jagged rocks spearing up from the bottom. Around me, on the walls and ceiling, hanging precariously close to the bridge, massive iron gears turned and creaked, making the ground vibrate. The closest gears were easily three times my height; some were even larger. It was like being inside a giant clock, and the noise was deafening.
We must be under Machina’s fortress, I thought, gazing around in awe. Wonder what those huge gears are for?
There was a tug on my arm, and I turned to see the lead pack rat point across the bridge, his jabbering lost in the grinding noise of the room. I understood. They had taken me as far as they could go. Now the last part of the trek would be on my own.
I nodded to show I understood and started forward, when he grabbed my hand. Holding my wrist, he beckoned to his pack rats, chattering at them. Two waddled forward, reaching back for some item on their humps.
“It’s okay,” I told them. “I don’t need any—”
My voice died away. The first pack rat drew out a long sheath with a familiar hilt, gleaming blue-black in the darkness. I caught my breath. “Is that…?”
He handed it over solemnly. Grasping the hilt, I pulled the blade free, washing the chamber in pale blue light. Steam writhed on the edge of Ash’s blade, and a lump caught in my throat.
I sheathed the blade and fastened it around my waist, grimly tightening the belt. “I appreciate this,” I told the pack rats, unsure if they understood. They chattered at me and still didn’t move, and the leader pointed at the second, smaller pack rat who’d approached. He blinked and reached back, drawing forward a slightly battered bow and—
For the second time, my heart stopped. The pack rat held up the Witchwood arrow, slimy and covered with oil, but otherwise intact. I took it reverently, my mind spinning. They could have given it to Ferrum, but they hadn’t, saving it for me all this time. The arrow pulsed in my hands, still alive and deadly.
I didn’t think. I dropped to my knees and hugged the pack rats, both the leader and the small one. They squeaked in surprise. Their lumps poked my skin, making it impossible to get my arms around them completely, but I didn’t care. When I rose, I thought the leader was blushing, though it was difficult to see in the darkness, and the small one grinned from ear to ear.
“Thank you,” I said, putting as much sincerity into my voice as I could. “Really, ‘thank you’ isn’t enough, but it’s all I have. You guys are amazing.”