We charged the field, joining our allies in trying to hold the line. But the false king’s army was new and fresh, and most of our forces were already exhausted. More and more of our soldiers fell under the relentless push of the false king’s army, and the fortress continued to creep forward, peppering the ground with cannonballs and explosions. We were being pushed back. We were giving ground.

With a roar, the green Summer dragon swooped overhead, its shadow flashing over us, and landed on the castle, talons digging into the side. Snarling, the dragon ripped and tore at the fortress walls, smashing cannons and breathing fire at the faeries manning them. For a moment, my heart leaped with hope. But then, the metal towers atop the castle glowed blue-white with energy, and an arc of lightning leaped outward, slamming into the dragon. The dragon screeched, going rigid, as more strands of deadly electricity coursed over and through it, lighting up the sky. It finally dropped off the castle, trailing smoke from its blackened scales, and crashed to the ground. It didn’t move again. My spirits plummeted. We couldn’t do it. If a freaking dragon couldn’t get into the fortress, what chance did I have? Shearing through a wireman, I looked around the field and my heart dropped even lower. There didn’t seem to be many good guys left. Oberon was back in his tree-giant form, flinging soldiers left and right, and Mab was an icy whirlwind of death, surrounded by frozen corpses and suits of armor, but I couldn’t see much of our army through the masses of Iron knights and other false-king soldiers. Worse, they appeared to have us surrounded.

An explosion shook the ground, very close, and I staggered backward, showered with rocks and dirt. Ash and Puck stood back-to-back, fending off attacks from all sides, but they were being pushed back, as well. A cold numbness spread through my body. We were going to lose. I couldn’t get into the fortress, couldn’t beat the false king. His army was too much for us. We had failed. I had failed.

“Master!”

Something small and fast leaped at me. I reacted instinctively and swatted it from the air, smashing it to the ground.

“Ouch.”

“Razor!” I scooped up the gremlin, holding him at arm’s length to see him clearly. He buzzed with joy. “What are you doing here? I told you to go to Mag Tuiredh. Why did you follow me?”

“Razor help! Help Master! Wanted to find you!”

“I know, but I needed you to get the others!” Despair rose up like a wave, and I shook him, angry and frustrated. He squeaked. “Why didn’t you go to Mag Tuiredh? Why didn’t you do what I asked? Now we’re all going to die!”

“No die!” Razor squirmed from my grasp, hitting the dirt to bounce around my feet. “No die, no! Razor did what Master wanted! Look!”

He pointed. From the edge of the woods, over the roar of explosions and screams of battle, I saw thousands of tiny green lights. Eyes, all staring at me. I gasped, and as one, they all broke into a smile, neon-blue crescent grins floating in the air.

They spilled from the woods like a rush of ink, black against the ash-covered ground, thousands upon thousands of gremlins, flowing toward the castle. They swarmed over and around the Iron soldiers like rocks in a stream, unhindered and unstoppable. Several fey lashed out at them, and several gremlins fell, left behind by the mass, but there were just too many of them to stop. They scurried up to the fortress and leaped onto its walls, swarming it like army ants or hornets. Lightning flashed, blasting them from the walls, and gremlins fell like rain, but there were always more, hissing and buzzing, and suddenly, the entire fortress shuddered to a halt.

Razor laughed, clamping on to my leg. “See?” he crowed, crawling up to my shoulder. “We help! Razor help! Razor did good?”

I pried him off me and kissed the top of his head, ignoring the rather violent static shock I received. “You did awesome. Now, get to safety. I’ll take it from here.” He buzzed happily and darted off, vanishing into the crowd. I took a deep breath and looked around. Ash and Puck had broken away from the main fighting to shield me from the masses coming forward. We were going to have to break through those lines, and quickly.

“Ash! Puck!” They whirled toward me, and I pointed forward. “The fortress defenses are down! I’m going in!”

“Hold!” Mab appeared before us, beautiful and frightening, her hair whipping about like snakes. “I will open a path for you,” she said, turning toward the raging battlefield. “This will take the last of my power, so be sure not to waste it, halfbreed. Are you ready?”

Still reeling from the shock that Mab was helping me, I nodded. The Winter Queen raised her hand, and I felt glamour swirling around her, raw and powerful. She swept her arm down, and a blast of freezing, icicle-strewn wind shot forward, ripping into the crowd, pelting them with shards as sharp as razors. Iron fey screeched and fell back, blinded, covering their eyes and faces, and a path opened before us, leading straight to the castle.

“Go,” Mab hissed, her voice slightly strained, and we didn’t hesitate. Gripping my sword, with Ash leading and Puck close behind, we charged into the hole.

The fortress loomed overhead, still flashing and spitting lightning as the gremlins swarmed over it. The packrats seemed frozen in place, eyes blank, faces slack, unaware of the battle going on around them. They didn’t react as we reached the base of the castle and Ash leaped onto the edge. I held my breath, praying he wouldn’t get blasted off like the dragon, but there were so many gremlins scurrying about, the defenses didn’t even notice us. Still, lightning flashed all around us, smelling of ozone and burning flesh, as Ash pulled me up and we pressed ourselves against the wall. Gremlins fell around us, charred and blackened, and I pressed my face into his shoulder.

“A door, a door, my kingdom for a door,” Puck muttered.

“There,” Ash said, pointing to a balcony several yards above us. “Come on. We’ll have to climb.”

Scaling the walls wasn’t difficult, though it was extremely nerve-racking with all the lighting and the shrieks of dying gremlins. But we reached the balcony in a short amount of time. A small iron door stood nestled in an alcove next to the railing, and I started toward it, eager to get out of the lightning storm. But before I was halfway across the balcony, the entire fortress trembled, like a dog shaking off water, and lurched into motion. I stumbled forward, slamming my shoulder into the door. It wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard I wrenched the handle or threw myself against it.

“Dammit!” Puck yelped, ducking as a deadly bolt of electricity slashed down nearby, making my skin crawl. “We’re gonna have to find another way in, unless someone happens to have a key!”

The key! Reaching up, I yanked the chain from my neck and shoved the iron key into the hole beneath the handle, praying it would work. I heard a soft click, and slammed myself into the door once again, just as the fortress lurched forward. This time, the door flew inward, and I tumbled over the threshold, Puck and Ash close behind me. Then it slammed shut with a clang, trapping us inside the fortress of the false king.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

THE FALSE KING

Panting, I looked around us, grabbing a pipe to keep steady as the fortress shook and bounced and trembled, trying to buck the intruders off its back. The inside of the false king’s fortress looked much like the outside, thrown together with no thought to architectural soundness, or anything that made sense, really. Stairways ran into walls, doors hung from the ceiling, and hallways snaked off to nowhere or curled around themselves. Rooms and floors sat at weird angles, making it difficult to keep your balance, and were filled with strange odds and ends. A tricycle rolled by, banging into a staircase, and a lamp, hanging upside down from the ceiling, flickered erratically.

“Great. The false king’s fortress is a giant rabbit hole.” Puck ducked as a model plane flew by on a string, barely missing him. “How are we supposed to find anything in this mess?”

I closed my eyes, feeling the dark, Iron glamour pulsing all around me. In Machina’s tower, I’d known I would find the Iron King at the very top, close to the sky and the wind, waiting for me. Here, in this crowded, tangled burrow, I could feel him, too. The false king. He knew I was here, an intruder in his private warren. I could feel his glee, his anticipation, as the fortress itself suddenly turned its gaze inward, searching for us. For me.

I shivered and opened my eyes. “He’s at the very center,” I murmured, looping the chain, the watch, and the lifesaving key around my neck once more.

“The heart of the fortress. And he’s waiting for us.”

“Then let’s not keep him,” Ash muttered, drawing his sword, which glowed like a beacon in the darkness. Huddled close, we crept forward, into the shadowed, tangled mess of the false king’s fortress.

We eased our way between mountains of junk, through rooms that made no sense, dodging trash and low-hanging cables. One time we followed a corridor that led us in a twisted spiral back to where we came. Another time we picked our way through a labyrinth of huge pipes, hissing steam. All the while, the dark glamour I felt grew stronger, more eager, the closer we came to the center. And then, very suddenly, the close, crowded walls opened up, and we stumbled into a vast open arena. Thick black pipes held up the ceiling, hissing madly, and metal poles stuck out of the roof, threads of lightning arcing between them, causing the whole place to flicker like a strobe light. In the center of the open space, an iron chair spiked up from the floor, polished and gleaming. Seated motionless on the throne, a body watched us, but under the flickering lights, it was difficult to see it clearly. Then a strand of lightning leaped from the ceiling and slithered rapidly over the throne, lighting it up like a Christmas tree, and I saw the face of the false king for the first time.

“You!” I gasped. My heart lurched, and my stomach dropped to my toes. Of course, it was him. How could I not have seen it before?

“Hello, Meghan Chase,” purred Ferrum, smiling at me. “I have been waiting for you.”

“FERRUM,” I WHISPERED, trying to match the figure of the false king with the sad, angry old man I’d met in the packrat tunnels. He was very much the same, withered and bent over, his arms and legs like brittle twigs and his white hair flowing almost to his feet. Voluminous black robes nearly swallowed his frail figure, and a twisted iron crown rested on his forehead, seeming to weigh him down. His skin had that same metallic tone, like he’d been dunked in liquid mercury, and the lightning crawling over his body didn’t seem to faze him a bit. But he glowed with power now, a dark, purplish aura that surrounded him, like it was sucking in all the light. I could feel it pulling at me, trying to drain my life and glamour, suck me dry until I was an empty husk. I shuddered and stepped back, and Ferrum broke into a maniacal grin.

“Yes, you feel it, don’t you, girl?” Ferrum raised a claw and beckoned me forward, still smiling. “You feel the void, the vacuum, where my power used to lie. The power of the Iron King. The power you stole from me when you killed Machina!” Ferrum slammed his fist into the chair with a hollow boom, making me jump. I didn’t remember him being this strong.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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