“Of course,” I whispered, reeling from the understanding. “I was using them separately, of course they reacted to each other. That’s what you were trying to tell me, wasn’t it? This power—me, you, Summer and Iron glamour—I can’t use one or the other. They’re useless separated. I have to…make them one.”
It was so simple, now that I thought about it. Paul had shown me they could combine; it was nothing new. This was why Machina gave his power to me—I was the only one who could merge them, a half-breed who could wield both Summer and Iron.
I felt a presence behind me, but didn’t turn. There would be nothing there if I did. “Are you ready?” Machina whispered. No, not Machina, the manifestation of the Iron glamour, my Iron glamour. The magic I had been rejecting, running away from, all this time. Using it, but never really accepting it. That ended today. It was time.
“I’m ready,” I murmured, and felt hands on my shoulders, long-fingered and powerful. Steel cables began coiling around me, around us, tightening as they slithered over my skin. About the time they stabbed into me, wiggling under my skin and crawling up toward my heart, I closed my eyes. Machina’s presence was fading away, growing fainter and fainter, though right before he vanished altogether, he bent close and whispered in my ear:
“You’ve always had the power to defeat the false king. He is a corrupter, a life-taker, poisoning everything he touches. He will try to drain your magic by force. You can defeat him, but you must be brave. Together, we can restore this land.”
The cables finally reached my heart, and a jolt like an electrical current slammed into my body, as all that was left of the Iron King faded completely and was gone.
I GASPED AND OPENED MY EYES.
I was in Ferrum’s chamber, lying on my back, watching the lightning threads dance over the ceiling. Only a few seconds must have passed since Ferrum hit me, as the false king was still standing in the middle of the arena with his arm outstretched. Beyond him, I could just make out Ash and Puck, still locked in battle with their opponents. Ash was shouting something, but his voice blurred in my ears, coming from far away. I felt dizzy, numb, and my skin tingled, as if all my limbs were asleep, but I was alive.
Something light slithered over my neck, tickling my skin. I reached up and felt cold metal; the pocket watch the Clockmaker had given me, so long ago. Lifting it up, I saw immediately that there was no saving it; the electricity had cracked the glass and melted the edges of the gold casing. The delicate hands were frozen in place. From the looks of the damage, it seemed the timepiece had taken the full brunt of the lightning bolt, one hundred and sixty-one hours from the time the Clockmaker had given it to me.
Thank you, I told him silently, and unlooped the chain from my neck, letting the watch clatter to the ground.
Ferrum’s eyes widened as I struggled to my knees, then my feet, fighting to stay upright as the floor lurched and spun. “Still alive?” he hissed as I shook off the last of the dizziness and faced him, clenching my fists. Everything was clearer now. I could feel the Iron glamour of the fortress pulsing all around me, and the black hole that was the false king, sucking it all away. I probed further and sensed the glamour of the Nevernever holding out against the Iron Realm, growing weaker as the Iron Kingdom pressed forward. I could feel the heartbeat of both lands, and the creatures dying on either side.
The power of the Iron King can be given, or can be lost, but it cannot be taken.
I suddenly realized what I had to do.
I trembled, wishing there had been more time—that Ash and I could’ve had more time. If I’d known, I might’ve done things differently. But beyond that moment of regret, I felt calm, certain, filled with a resolve that pushed back all fear or doubt. I was ready. There was no other way.
I looked at Ferrum and smiled.
The false king hissed and sent another bolt of lightning at me. I raised my hand, Summer and Iron glamour swirling around me, and knocked it aside, sending it into the wall over Ferrum’s head. The energy exploded in a shower of sparks, and Ferrum screeched in rage. For a moment, I held my breath, waiting for the pain and nausea to hit.
Nothing. No pain, no sickness. Summer and Iron glamour had merged perfectly, one no longer tainting the other. I reached out and called my spear to me, ripping it from Ferrum’s grasp, grabbing it as it smacked into my palm. Ferrum’s eyes bugged, and glamour flared around him like a dark flame. I flourished the spear and sank into a ready stance.
“Come on then, old man,” I called, ignoring my pounding heart, the way my hands were shaking. “You throw like a girl. You want my power? Come get it!”
Ferrum rose into the air like a vengeful phoenix, hair and robes snapping behind him. “Insolent child!” he screamed, “I shall not toy with you a moment longer! I will take my power back right now!”
He flew at me, covering the arena floor in a blink, though I saw everything clearly. I watched Ferrum close on me, his face twisted into a mask of rage, lunging forward. I saw those deadly talons, stabbing at my chest. I knew I could block it, step aside…
I’m sorry, Ash.
I closed my eyes instead.
Ferrum hit me square in the gut with the full power of his hate behind it, driving his claws deep into my chest. The force bent me over, punching the breath from my lungs, a moment before fire blossomed through my stomach. The pain was excruciating. I would’ve gasped, but there was no air left in me. Somewhere far away, I heard Ash scream in rage and fury, Puck’s cry of dismay, but then Ferrum stepped forward, pushing his claws in even farther, and everything melted into a red haze of agony.
Bent over the false king’s arm, my body shook and convulsed, and I concentrated on not passing out, not giving in to the blackness that crawled at the edge of my vision. It was tempting, so tempting, to give in, to let go of the pain and sink into oblivion. My blood dripped to the floor between us, a growing crimson pool; I could feel my life leaking away, as well.
“Yes,” Ferrum whispered in my ear, his breath smelling of rust and rot,
“suffer. Suffer for stealing my power from me. For thinking you were worthy to carry it. Now, you will die, and I will become the Iron King once more. The power of the Iron King is mine once again!”
I raised a trembling, blood-soaked hand and grabbed the collar of his robes, raising my head to meet the false king’s triumphant gaze. My life was fading fast; I had to be quick. “You want it?” I whispered, forcing the words out, when all I wanted to do was scream or cry. “Take it. It’s yours.” And I sent my power, the merged glamour of Summer and Iron, into the false king.
Ferrum threw back his head and laughed, swelling with power, his voice ringing through the chamber. Glamour flared around him like a dark fire, and he seemed to swell, to grow as the massive power of the Iron King flowed into him. Suddenly, it sputtered, the cold black corruption flickering with tongues of green and gold, heat and warmth. Ferrum jerked, eyes going wide with confusion and fear, staring at me in horror.
“What…what are you doing to me? What have you done?” He tried pulling back, but I clamped my fingers around his wrist, holding us together.
“You wanted the Iron King’s power,” I told Ferrum, whose eyes were bulging and crazy now, glamour swirling around him like a colorful vortex, “you can have it. Iron and Summer both. Afraid you can’t separate them, now.”
Glamour continued to pour into Ferrum, as I clung to him with my fading strength. “You might’ve killed me, but I swear, I won’t let you touch the Nevernever. Or my family. Or my friends. The Iron King’s reign ends right now.”
Branches erupted from the false king’s chest, twisted and bent, rushing up toward the ceiling, and Ferrum screamed. Ripping his claws from my stomach, he staggered back, clutching at the limbs, trying to tear them out. I fell to my knees, stayed upright for a split second, then collapsed, my head striking the ground with a thump.
Reality blurred, and time seemed to slow. Ferrum writhed and thrashed, his screams filling the chamber as his arms split and turned into branches, his fingers becoming gnarled twigs. I saw Ash, his face frighteningly out of control, slam his brother’s sword away, step forward and plunge his blade through Rowan’s armor, into his chest. A flash of vicious blue, and Rowan arched back, going stiff as if frozen from inside. Ash yanked his sword up and out, and Rowan shattered, falling to the floor in a million glistening pieces.
A howl from the other side of the room showed two Pucks holding Tertius between them, while a third Puck raised his dagger and plunged it into the knight’s chest.
“Damn you.” Ferrum’s voice was a croak, and my attention flickered back to the false king. He was almost gone now, a tiny, gnarled old tree, bent and withered. Only his face showed through the trunk, hateful eyes boring into me. “I thought I’d seen evil in Machina,” he wheezed, “but you are far, far worse. My power, all my power, gone. Wasted.” His voice broke, and he made a noise like a sob before turning a last sneer on me. “At least I can take comfort in the fact that neither of us will have it in the end. You will die soon. Not even the power of the Iron King can save you n—” His voice abruptly cut out, or maybe I lost consciousness for a moment, because the next time I opened my eyes, Ferrum was gone. An ugly, skeletal tree was all that remained of the false king. The pain was still there, but it was a dull, distant thing now, insignificant. Somewhere far away, someone called my name. At least, I thought it was my name. I blinked, trying to focus, but my thoughts were fuzzy and slipped away like smoke, and I was too tired to call them back.
Closing my eyes, I let myself drift, wanting nothing but the chance to rest. Surely I had earned it by now. Defeating a false king and saving all of Faery—
there were certainly worse ways to die. But, even as I hovered on the edge of the void, I could still feel the labored heartbeat of the land, the poisoned trail Ferrum had carved on his journey, and the corruption seeping into the Nevernever. Just because Ferrum was gone didn’t mean the Iron Realm would disappear. The last of the Iron King’s power still flickered inside me, weakly, a candle held up to the wind. It was still my responsibility, this power. What would happen to it when I died? Who would I give it to? Who could I give it to, this new glamour of Summer and Iron, without killing them?
“Meghan!” The voice called to me again, and I recognized it now. It was his voice, the voice of my knight, frantic and tormented, pulling me back from the void. “Meghan, no!” it pleaded, echoing in the blackness. “Don’t do this. Come on, wake up. Please.” The last word was a desperate, whispered sob, and I opened my eyes.
Ash peered down at me, silver eyes suspiciously bright, his face pale and wan. Cradled in his arms, I blinked as the sounds of the world came back, the crackle of energy above, the shuffle of metal boots from the Iron knights still surrounding us. I spared a quick glance over, and saw that all the knights had laid down their arms and were now watching us with identical grave expressions, waiting.
I looked back to Ash, seeing Puck standing over his shoulder as well, white and pale. “Ash,” I whispered, my voice sounding weak and breathy in my ears.