“But now, you are here,” he finished, still gazing at me with those crazy, inhuman eyes. “And I will take back what is rightfully mine. For centuries have I waited for this day, when I can reclaim my throne and my right as king!” He leaned forward, speaking fervently, as if to convince us. “It will be different this time. Machina was right to fear the oldbloods. They will destroy us if we do not put them down first. When I kill you and my power is returned, I will take this land and remake it in my own image, where my subjects and slaves can live in peace, and I can rule as I did before, unopposed and unquestioned.”
“You’re wrong,” I said quietly, as his eyes widened, blazing and feverish.
“The power of the Iron King was never yours, not since you lost it to Machina all those years ago. It can be earned, and it can be lost, but it can never be taken. Machina gave it to me. Even if you kill me, you won’t get back your power. You can’t reclaim the past, Ferrum. Let it go. You’ll never be the Iron King again.”
“Silence!” Ferrum screeched, hitting the throne arm again. “Lies! I have waited for this day too long to listen to your filthy half-truths! Guards, guards!”
Clanking footsteps boomed around us, and a platoon of Iron knights appeared, encircling the arena. Ash and Puck pressed close, and we stood backto-back, weapons drawn, as the knights came to a stop at the edge, surrounding us in a ring of steel.
Ferrum rose from his throne, floating a few feet from the ground like a spindly wraith, his long hair floating around him. “You will not deny me what is rightfully mine,” the false king raged, pointing at me with a long metallic finger.
“And your little bodyguards will not stop me from taking it, either. I have some friends of theirs who are dying to see them.”
I wasn’t surprised when the ranks parted and Rowan stepped out on one side, Tertius on the other. The Iron knight looked bored and cold, but Rowan’s grin was inhumanly eager as he drew his sword, spinning it casually as he advanced on Ash.
“Come on, little brother,” Rowan sneered, the flickering light washing over his burned, ravaged face. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”
“Meghan.” Ash eased back a step, torn between protecting me and going after Rowan. I softly touched his arm.
“It’s okay.” He gave me a desperate, helpless look, and I smiled encouragingly. “I’ll be all right. This is what we came here for. Keep Rowan off me, and I’ll take care of Ferrum.” I hope. “Puck, will you be all right?”
“No problem, princess.” Puck whirled his daggers, facing off against Ash’s doppelganger. The look on his face scared me a little. It was one of pure, savage zeal as Puck bared his teeth in a fearsome smile. “I think I’m gonna enjoy this.”
Ash held my gaze. “I can’t protect you this time,” he whispered. “And I know you’re ready for this but, Meghan…be careful,” he finished, and I nodded.
“You, too.” I stepped back, but he pulled me forward and kissed me, quick and desperate, before turning to face Rowan.
“Go on, then,” he said softly, his voice shaking a bit. “Go save us all.”
With my head up and my resolve firmly in place, I turned and walked toward the center of the room. This was it. Ash and Puck couldn’t help me now. I had to do this on my own.
Ferrum waited for me before his throne, a skeletal wraith-creature, his robes and hair billowing behind him. The screech and clash of weapons echoed behind me as two of the people I loved most in the world fought for their lives, but I didn’t turn back to look. My gaze was only for the false king as I stopped a few yards from the throne, my sword held loosely at my side. Ferrum watched me for a moment, hanging in the air like a vulture, and he broke into a slow, eager smile. “This can be simple and painless, you know,” he whispered. “Kneel before me now, and you will not suffer. Your end will be as peaceful as a lullaby, singing you to sleep.”
I gripped my sword, swinging it into a ready position as Ash had taught me.
“We both know that’s not going to happen.”
Ferrum smiled. “Very well,” he said, and his arms rose away from his sides. I felt him drawing glamour from the fortress, from the poisoned land and even his subjects, sucking the dark power into himself. His fingers flexed, growing long and pointed, turning into gleaming blades. “I prefer it this way, myself.” And he flew at me.
He was insanely fast. I barely had time to see him coming, a blur of silver across the floor, before he was in front of me, swiping at my face. I knocked away the stabbing fingers and slashed at him in return, but he was already gone, zipping to the side. I felt his claws strike my armor, and then a blinding pain as they sliced through the scales like paper, cutting into my arm. I whirled and swiped at him, my blade passing through empty air as Ferrum darted away, clear across the room in a blink.
My arm burned, the silver dragon-scale spattered with red where the false king had cut me. Ferrum drifted closer, slower this time, his mouth twisted in a hungry smile. He knew he was faster than me. I closed out the pain and raised my sword again, and the false king laughed in triumph.
“Is that the best you can do, Meghan Chase? All the power of the Iron King at your fingertips, and you can do nothing. How disappointing.” A blink and he was close again, smiling. I threw myself back, but Ferrum didn’t press his advantage, shaking his head like a disappointed grandfather.
“You have no idea how to wield that power, do you, girl? It sits, smoldering inside you, an untapped flood. Or are you just saving it for later?” He was mocking me now, confident in his victory, and that pissed me off. I lunged at him with a snarl, slashing at his face, intending to wipe that ugly sneer from his mouth. He dodged, thrust out a hand, and I was hit with a blast of pure Iron glamour. My sword was torn from my hands. The force knocked me back, sent me tumbling to the edge of the arena, gasping and winded at the feet of the Iron knights. Over the ringing in my ears, I heard Ash’s howl of fury and the false king’s mocking laughter.
“Get up!” he snapped as I staggered to my knees. I tried, but the floor was spinning and my stomach felt like it had been pulled inside out. The false king barked another laugh. “Pathetic!” he crowed. “You are weak! Weak, to be carrying the power of the Iron King. I don’t know what Machina was thinking, to waste it on you! No matter. I will cut it out of your weak human body and use it as it was meant to be used, for the glory of myself and my kingdom.”
He raised his hands, claws smeared with my blood, and drifted toward me. Dark, poisonous Iron glamour pulsed all around us, ebbing from the walls and from every shadow of the fortress, feeding him, empowering him. I couldn’t beat Ferrum like this. I was going to have to fight fire with fire and hope I wouldn’t pass out from the effort.
I gazed across the arena to my sword, lying in the middle of the floor, flickering under the lights. I remembered how I had once twisted the shape of an iron ring, made iron bolts change direction in midair. I remembered how Ferrum made his own fingers change, becoming deadly and sharp, and concentrated on my weapon, seeing the Iron glamour in my mind. The sword glowed white-hot, stretched, and lengthened, turning from a sword to a spear. Nausea rose up as my Summer magic reacted violently to the Iron glamour, cramping my stomach and making the room spin, but I bit my lip and gave the magic one last, desperate pull.
Ferrum was right over me, his claws poised to end my life, when the spear flew from the floor, streaked across the room, and hit him from behind. I saw it erupt from his chest, striking the armor of one of the knights, and I scrambled away as Ferrum arched back with a scream, clutching the spear through his middle.
Staggering to the center of the arena, I collapsed as the nausea overtook me, gasping and trying not to retch. It was over. We had won, somehow. Now all we had to do was get past Rowan and Tertius, and make it back to our side. Hopefully, the Iron knights would let us go now that Ferrum was dead—
High-pitched, frantic laughter stopped me in my tracks.
When I raised my head, my blood ran cold. Ferrum was still standing, the spear through his chest, glamour snapping and flaring around him like a thunderstorm. “You think you can defeat me with iron, Meghan Chase?” he howled. “I am iron! I was the first Iron fey born into this world—it runs in my veins, my blood, my very essence! Your pathetic use of Iron glamour only makes me stronger!”
Reaching down, he pulled the spear from his chest in one smooth, contemptuous motion. I struggled upright as the false king rose into the air, hair and clothes whipping around him in the gale. “Now,” Ferrum droned, lifting the spear above his head, “it is time to end this.”
Lightning arced from the ceiling to the tip of the spear, lancing down and crackling around the false king. I felt my hair stand up, rising away from my neck, as Ferrum lifted his other hand and pointed at me. There was a blinding flash. Something slammed into my chest, and the noise of the world cut out, as abruptly as if someone had switched off a television. Everything went white.
“YOU CANNOT BEAT HIM.”
Blinking, I squinted against the glare, shielding my eyes as I gazed around. All around me, everything was white. No ground, no shadows, nothing but a blank white void as empty as space.
But I knew he was here, with me.
“Where are you, Machina?” I asked, my voice echoing into the emptiness.
“I have always been here, Meghan Chase,” was Machina’s reply, coming from everywhere and nowhere. “I was given to you, freely and without constraint. It is you who has rejected me every time.”
That didn’t make any sense, and I shook my head to clear it, trying to remember where I was. “Where is everyone? Where is…Ferrum! I was fighting Ferrum. I have to get back. Where is he?”
“You cannot beat him,” Machina said again. “Not the way you are fighting. He is the essence of Iron’s corruption, feeding off the land like a bloated tick. His power is too great, and you cannot defeat him with Iron glamour alone.”
“I’m going to have to try,” I said angrily. “I don’t have a magic Witchwood arrow to kill him like I did you. I just have myself.”
“The Witchwood arrow was only a conduit for your own Summer glamour. It was powerful, yes, but it only worked because you are Oberon’s daughter, and his living, healing Summer blood flows through you. In essence, you injected the Iron King with your own Summer magic, and my body could not take it. It is the same with Ferrum.”
“Well, I can’t do that anymore. Every time I use Summer magic, the Iron gets in the way. I can’t use one without the other tainting it. I can’t win like that. I can’t—” Close to despair, I sank to my knees, burying my face in one hand. “I have to win,” I whispered. “I have to. Everyone is depending on me. There must be a way to use my Summer magic. Dammit, my father is the Summer King, there has to be a way to separate—”
And then it hit me.
I remembered my father. Not the Seelie King—my human father, Paul. I could see us sitting at the old piano, while he tried to explain how music worked. I could see the Iron glamour in the notes, the strict lines and rigid rules that made up the score, but the music itself was a vortex of song and pure, swirling emotion. They weren’t separate entities, creative magic and Iron glamour. They were one; cold logic and wild emotion, merged together to create something truly beautiful.