“I left him right here,” Grimalkin said. Looking around briefly, he leaped to a dry rock and began shaking his paws, one by one. “We appear to be too late. It seems our impatient friend has already gone inside.”
A deep snort cut through the air before I could panic. “HOW FOOLISH DO
YOU THINK I AM?” Ironhorse rumbled, bending low to clear the rim of the pipe. He was in his more human form, as there was no way he could have fit his real body inside. “THERE
WAS A PATROL COMING, AND I WAS FORCED TO HIDE. I DO NOT BREAK THE
PROMISES I GIVE.” He glared at Grimalkin, but the cat only yawned and started washing his tail.
Ash stiffened, and his hand went casually to his sword hilt. I didn’t blame him. Barring his brief stint with Virus, the last Ash had seen of Ironhorse, he was dragging us to Machina in chains. Of course, Ironhorse was wearing a different form now, but you had only to look closely to see the huge, black iron monster that lurked beneath the surface. I switched to the problem at hand, not oblivious to the dark look he was receiving from Ash. “We’re sure Virus is in there?” I asked, subtly moving between them. “So, how are we going to get inside, especially with the gremlins crawling all over the building?”
Ironhorse snorted. “THE GREMLINS WILL NOT BOTHER US, PRINCESS. THEY ARE SIMPLE CREATURES. THEY LIVE FOR CHAOS AND
DESTRUCTION, BUT THEY ARE COWARDLY AND WILL NOT ATTACK A POWERFUL OPPONENT.”
“I’m afraid I have to disagree,” Ash said, a dangerous edge to his voice now.
“You yourself lead an army of gremlins in Machina’s realm, or have you forgotten? They don’t attack powerful opponents? I seem to recall a wave of them trying to tear me apart in the mines.”
“That’s right,” I echoed, frowning. “And what about the time the gremlins kidnapped me and hauled me off to meet you? Don’t tell me the gremlins aren’t dangerous.”
“NO.” Ironhorse shook his head. “LET ME CLARIFY. BOTH TIMES, THE
GREMLINS WERE UNDER MACHINA’S COMMAND. LORD MACHINA WAS THE
ONLY ONE WHO COULD CONTROL THEM, THE ONLY ONE THEY EVER LISTENED
TO. WHEN HE DIED, THEY REVERTED TO THEIR NORMAL, FERAL STATE. THEY
ARE NO THREAT TO US, NOW.”
“What about Virus?” Puck asked.
“VIRUS SEES THEM AS VERMIN. EVEN IF SHE COULD CONTROL
THEM, SHE WOULD RATHER LET HER DRONES DO THE WORK THAN STOOP TO
DEALING WITH ANIMALS.”
“Well, this should be easy, then.” Puck smirked. “We’ll just stroll in the front door, waltz up to Virus, grab the scepter, have some tea and save the world before breakfast. Silly me, thinking it would be hard.”
“What I think Puck is trying to say,” I said, shooting Puck a frown, “is—what will we do about Virus when we find her? She’s got the scepter. Isn’t it supposed to be powerful?”
“Don’t worry about that.” Ash’s voice raised the hairs on my neck. “I’ll take care of Virus.”
Puck rolled his eyes. “Very nice, Prince Cheerful, but there is one problem. We have to get inside first. How do you propose we do that?”
“You’re the expert.” Ash glanced at Puck, and his mouth twitched into a smirk of his own. “You tell me.”
Grimalkin sighed and rose, his tail lashing his flanks. “The hope of the Nevernever,” he said, eyeing each of us disdainfully. “Wait here. I will check the place out.”
HE HADN’T BEEN GONE LONG when Puck stiffened and Ash jerked up, his hand going to his sword. “Someone’s coming,” he warned, and we scrambled into the ditch, my gown catching on weeds and jagged pieces of glass. Sloshing into the pipe, I grimaced as the cold, filthy water soaked my shoes and dress. At this rate, it wouldn’t survive the night. Two figures marched past our hiding spot, dressed in familiar black armor with spines growing from the shoulders and back. The faint smell of rot and putrefying flesh drifted into the tube at their passing. I stifled a cough and put my hand over my nose.
“Rowan’s Thornguards,” Ash murmured grimly as the pair moved on. Frowning, Puck peeked over his shoulder.
“Wonder how many are in there?”
“I’d guess a few squads at least,” Ash replied. “I imagine Rowan wanted to send his best to take over the realm.”
“You are right,” Grimalkin said, suddenly materializing beside us. He perched on a cinder block so as not to touch the water, keeping his tail straight up. “There are many Thornguards inside, along with several Iron fey and a few dozen human drones. And gremlins, of course. The factory is crawling with them, but no one seems to pay them much attention.”
“Did you see Virus or the scepter?” I asked.
“No.” Grimalkin sat down, curling his tail tightly around his feet. “However, there are two Thornguards stationed at a back door who will not let anyone past.”
At Virus’s name, Ash narrowed his eyes. “Can we fight our way through?”
“I would not advise it,” Grimalkin replied. “It appears some of them are using iron weapons—steel swords and crossbows with iron bolts and such. It would only take one well-placed shot to kill you.”
Puck frowned. “Fey using iron weapons? You think Virus has them all bugged?”
“Something far worse, I’m afraid.” Ash’s face was like stone as he stared at the factory. “I was forced into service. Virus didn’t give me a choice. The Thornguards are acting on their own. Like Rowan. They want to destroy the Nevernever and give it to the Iron fey.”
Puck’s eyebrows shot up. “The hell? Why?”
“Because they think they can become like Virus,” I replied, thinking back to what Edgebriar had said, remembering the crazed, doomed look in his eye. “They believe it’s only a matter of time before Faery fades away entirely. So the only way to survive is to become like the Iron fey. They wear a metal ring beneath their gloves to prove their loyalty, and because they think it will make them immune to the effects. But it’s just killing them slowly.”
“Huh. Well, that’s…absolutely horrifying.” Puck shook his head in disbelief.
“Still, we have to get in there somehow, iron weapons or no. Can we glamour ourselves to look like them?”
“It won’t hold up against all the iron,” Ash muttered, deep in thought.
“I might have a better idea,” Grimalkin said. “There are several glass skylights on the roof of the factory. You could map the layout of the building from there, maybe even see where Virus is.”
That sounded like a good idea. But… “How do we get up there?” I asked, staring at the looming glass-and-metal wall of the factory. “Puck can fly, and I’m sure Ash can get up there, but Ironhorse and I are a little more earthbound.”
Grimalkin nodded sagely. “Normally, I would agree. But tonight, it seems the Fates are on our side. There is a window cleaner’s platform on the far side of the building.”
EVEN WITH Ironhorse’s assurance that the gremlins wouldn’t bother us, we approached with extreme caution. The memory of being kidnapped by the gremlins, their sharp claws digging into my skin, their freaky, maniacal laughter and buzzing voices, still burned hot in my mind. One had even lived in my iPod before it was broken, and Machina had used it to communicate with me even within the borders of Arcadia. Gremlins were sneaky, evil, little monsters, and I didn’t trust them one bit.
Fortunately, our luck seemed to hold as we made our way around the back of the factory. A small platform hovered over the ground, attached to a pulley system that climbed all the way up to the roof. The wall was dark, and the gremlins were absent, at least for now.
Grimalkin hopped lightly onto the wooden platform, followed by Ash and Puck, being careful not to touch the iron railings. Ash pulled me up after him, and then Ironhorse clambered aboard. The wooden planks creaked horribly and bent in the middle, but thankfully held firm. I prayed the entire thing wouldn’t snap like a matchstick when we were three stories in the air.
Puck and Ironhorse each grabbed a rope and began drawing the platform up the side of the building. The dark, mirrored walls reflected a strange party back at us: a cat, two elf-boys, a girl in a slightly tattered gown, and a monstrous black man with glowing red eyes. I contemplated how strange my life had become, but was interrupted by a soft hiss overhead. A gremlin crouched on the pulleys near the top of the roof, slanted eyes glowing in the dark. Spindly and long limbed, with huge batlike ears, it flashed me its razor-blue grin and let out a buzzing cry.
Instantly, gremlins started appearing from everywhere, crawling out of windows, scuttling along the walls, swarming over the roof to peer at us. A few even clung to the pulley ropes or perched on the railings, staring at us with their eerie green gaze. Ash pulled me close, his sword bared to slash at any gremlin who ventured near, but the tiny Iron fey didn’t make any move to attack. Their buzzing voices filled the air, like radio static, and their vivid grins surrounded us with a blue glow as we continued to inch up the wall, unhindered.
“What are they doing?” I whispered, pressing closer to Ash. He held me protectively with one arm, his sword between us and the gremlins. “Why are they just staring at us? What do they want? Ironhorse?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “I DO NOT KNOW, PRINCESS,” he replied, sounding as mystified as I felt. “I HAVE NEVER SEEN THEM ACT IN THIS MANNER
“Well, tell them to go away. They’re creeping me out.”
A buzz went through the gremlins surrounding us, and the swarm began to clear. Crawling back along the walls, they disappeared through the windows, squeezed into the cracks or scrambled back over the roof. As suddenly as they’d appeared, the gremlins vanished, and the wall was dark and silent again.
“Okay.” Puck cast wary looks all around us. “That was…weird. Did someone release gremlin repellant? Did they just get bored?”
Ash sheathed his sword and released me. “Maybe we scared them off.”
“Maybe,” I said, but Ironhorse was staring at me, his crimson eyes unfathomable.
Grimalkin reappeared, scratching his ear as if nothing had happened. “It does not matter now,” he said, as the platform scraped up against the roof. “They are gone, and the scepter is close.” He yawned and blinked up at us. “Well? Are you just going to stand there and hope it flies into your hands?”
We crowded off the platform onto the roof of the factory. The wind was stronger here, tugging at my hair and making my gown snap like a sail. I held on to Ash as we made our way across the roof. Far below and all around us, the city sprawled out like a glittering carpet of stars.
Several raised glass skylights sat in the middle of the roof, emitting a fluorescent green glow. Cautiously, I edged up to one and peered down.
“There,” Ash muttered, pointing to a mezzanine twenty or so feet above the floor, and maybe thirty feet below us. Through the glass, I could pick out a blur of poison-green amid the stark grays and whites, surrounded by several faeries in black armor. Virus walked to the edge of the overhang and gazed out over a crowd of assembled fey, ready to give a speech, I supposed. I saw Thornguards and wiremen and a few green-skinned men in business suits, along with several fey I didn’t recognize. The scepter pulsed yellow-green in Virus’s hands as she swept it over her head, and a muffled roar went through the crowd.