“Ash.” I reached up and touched his cheek, tracing the line of his jaw. “I love you. Never forget that. And I…I wanted to live the rest of my life with you. But…” And I paused, trying to catch my breath. It was getting hard even to speak, and Ash’s outline was fading at the edges. I blinked hard to keep him in focus.
“But I…I can’t let you die because of me,” I continued, seeing understanding dawn in his eyes, followed by alarm. “I won’t allow it.”
“It’s all right if you hate me,” I continued, speaking faster so he couldn’t change my mind. “In fact, that might be for the best. Hate me, so you can find someone…someone else to love. But I want you to live, Ash. You have so much to live for.”
“Please.” Ash gripped my hand, “Don’t do this.”
“I release you,” I whispered. “From your vow of knighthood, and the promises you made. Your service to me is done, Ash. You’re free.”
Ash bowed his head, shoulders heaving. I swallowed the bitter lump in my throat, my stomach churning painfully. It was done. I hated myself for it, but it was the right thing to do. I’d asked so much of him already. Even if he was prepared to die, I wasn’t going to let that happen.
“Now,” I said, releasing his hand. “Get out of here, Ash. Before it’s too late.”
“Ash, you can’t stay. The amulet is gone. If you’re here much longer, you’ll die.”
Ash said nothing. But I knew that stubborn set of his shoulders, the flare of resolve around him, and I knew he would stay with me regardless. And so, I did the only thing I could think of. He would curse the day he met the human girl in the wyldwood, vow to never, ever, fall in love again. But he would live.
“Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn,” I said, and he closed his eyes, “by the power of your True Name, leave the Iron Realm right now.” I turned my head so I wouldn’t see him, forcing out the last words. “And don’t come back.”
I’m so sorry, Ash. But please, live for me. If anyone deserves to come out of this alive, it’s you.
A soft noise, almost a sob. Ash rose, hesitated, as if fighting the compulsion to obey. “I will always be your knight, Meghan Chase,” he whispered in a strained voice, as if every moment he remained was painful to him. “And I swear, if there is a way for us to be together, I will find it. No matter how long it takes. If I have to chase your soul to the ends of eternity, I won’t stop until I find you, I promise.”
And then he was gone.
Alone at the base of the giant oak, I lay back, fighting the urge to cry, to scream out my fear and desolation. There was no time for that anymore. The world was getting dark, and I had one last thing I had to do. Closing my eyes, I reached out with my glamour, feeling both Summer and Iron rise up in response. Cautiously, I probed the roots of the giant oak, following them deep into the cracked, dry earth, sensing the devastation of the land around it. The Iron glamour that was killing one species but sustaining another. I thought of my family. Of Mom and Luke and Ethan, still waiting for me at home. I thought of my human dad, Paul, and my real father, the Summer King. Of everyone I had met along the way: Glitch, the rebels, Razor. Ironhorse. They were of the Iron Kingdom, but they were still fey. They deserved a chance to live, just like everyone else.
I thought of Grimalkin, and Puck. My wise teacher and my brave, loyal best friend. They would live, I would make certain of that. They would laugh and inspire ballads and collect favors until the end of time. This was for them. And for my knight, who had given everything for me. Who would’ve been there to the very end, had I let him.
Ash, Puck, everyone. I love you all. Remember me. And in one final, determined push, I gathered the power of the Iron King into a massive, swirling ball and sent it deep into the roots of the giant oak.
A shudder went through the tree, continuing into the land around it, like ripples on a glassy pond. It radiated outward, spreading to the dead trees and vegetation, and the once-withered plants stirred as the new glamour touched their roots. I sensed the land waking up, drinking in the new magic, healing the poison that the Iron glamour had seeped into the land. Trees straightened, unfurling new leaves from steel branches. The hard obsidian plain shuddered as green sprouts pushed their way to the surface. The mottled yellow clouds began to break apart, showing blue sky and sun peeking through the cracks.
A cool breeze blew in from somewhere, cooling my face and causing a rain of leaves to flutter around me. The air smelled of earth and new grass. Lulled into a deep peace, listening to the sounds of growing things all around me, I closed my eyes and finally surrendered to the darkness.
THE IRON QUEEN
Machina waited for me on the other side.
“Hello, Meghan Chase,” he greeted softly, smiling in the brightness that surrounded us. No longer the black void of dreams, or the harsh whiteness of my mind, I didn’t really know where I was. Coiling mist surrounded me, and I wondered if this was just one more test before I reached the afterlife, or whatever lay beyond the fog.
“Machina.” I nodded. He was barely discernible in the mist, but every so often the fog would clear and I saw him, though sometimes he appeared as a massive tree. “What are you doing here?” I sighed. “Don’t tell me you’re guarding the pearly gates. You never struck me as the angelic type.”
The Iron King shook his head. His cables, folded behind him, looked almost like glimmering wings, but Machina could not, in any way, be mistaken for something else. I blinked, and for a moment it seemed I stood under the limbs of the great oak again. But the land around it was changed, green and silver, twined together seamlessly. I turned my head and Machina stood before me again, gazing down with what could only be pride.
“I wanted to congratulate you,” he murmured, like the whisper of wind through the leaves. “You’ve come farther than anyone could have expected. Defeating the false king by sacrificing yourself was phenomenal. But then, you gave your power to the one thing that could save you both—the land itself.”
Movement swirled around me, flashes of color, showing a land both familiar and strange. Mountains of junk dominated the landscape, but moss and vines grew around them now, twisted and blooming with flowers. A huge city of stone and steel had both street lamps and flowering trees lining the streets, and a fountain in the center square spouted clear water. A railroad cut through a grassy plain, where a huge silver oak loomed over crumbling ruins, shiny and metallic and alive.
“Summer and Iron,” Machina continued softly, “merged together, becoming one. You’ve done the impossible, Meghan Chase. The corruption of the Nevernever has been cleansed. The Iron fey now have a place to live without fearing the wrath of the other courts.” He sighed and shook his head. “If Mab and Oberon can leave us in peace, that is.”
“What about the regular fey?” I asked, as the images faded and it was just me and the Iron King once more. “Can’t they live here, as well?”
“No.” Machina faced me solemnly. “Though you have cleansed the poison and stopped the spread of Iron glamour, our world is still just as deadly to the oldbloods. Iron fey are still everything the regular fey fear and dread; we cannot survive in the same place. The most we can hope for is peaceful coexistence in our separate realms. And even that might be too much for the other rulers of the fey courts. Summer and Winter are mired in their traditions. They need someone to show them another way.”
I fell silent, considering this. What Machina said made sense, but he didn’t say how he would accomplish this. Who would step up and be the champion of the Iron fey, the new Iron King?
Of course. I sighed, shaking my head. “You’d think, after saving the entire realm of Faery, I could get some sort of vacation,” I muttered, daunted by the huge task before me. “Why does it have to be me? Can’t someone else do it?”
“When you gave away your power, you essentially healed the land,” Machina said, regarding me with a small smile. “And, because you are connected, the land healed you in return. You, Meghan Chase, are the living, beating heart of the Iron Realm. Its glamour sustains you; your existence gives it life. You cannot survive without each other.” He started to fade, the brightness around us growing dimmer, becoming a black void. “So,” murmured the last Iron King, his voice barely a whisper in the dark, “the only question is, what are you going to do now?”
SOMETHING TOUCHED MY FACE, and I opened my eyes.
A small, anxious face stared into mine, eyes glowing green, huge ears fanning away from its head. Razor squawked as I blinked at him, then grinned in delight.
I groaned and waved him off. My body felt weak, pounded on and beaten into submission, but thankfully, there wasn’t any lingering pain. Above me, the metal branches of the great oak waved gently in the wind, sunlight slanting through the leaves and dappling the ground. My fingers brushed cool grass as I carefully eased myself into a sitting position, gazing around in astonishment. I was surrounded by Iron fey. Gremlins and Iron knights, hacker elves and clockwork hounds, wiremen, dwarves, spider-hags, and more. Glitch stood silently with his arm in a sling, next to Spikerail and two of his iron horses, watching me with solemn eyes.
I could feel them, all of them. I could feel every heartbeat, sense the Iron glamour coursing through them, pulsing in time with the land, flowing through me. I knew the edges of my realm, brushing against the Nevernever, not spreading, not corrupting, content to sit within its new boundaries. I felt every tree and bush and blade of grass, spread before me like a seamless patchwork quilt. And, if I closed my eyes and really concentrated, I could hear my own heartbeat, and the pulse of the land, echoing it.
What will you do now, Meghan Chase?
I understood. This was my fate, my destiny. I knew what had to be done. Pulling myself upright, I took a step forward, away from the trunk, standing on my own. As one, every Iron fey, rank upon rank of them, bowed their heads and sank to their knees. Even Glitch, bending down awkwardly, holding on to a kneeling Spikerail for support. Even Razor and the gremlins, burying their faces in the grass. The Iron knights clanked in unison as they drew their swords and knelt, the sword points jammed into the earth.
In the silence, I gazed out over the mass of kneeling fey and raised my voice. I don’t know why I said it, but deep down, I knew it was right. My words echoed over the crowd, sealing my fate. It would be a hard road, and I had a lot of work ahead of me, but in the end, this was the only possible outcome.
“My name is Meghan Chase, and I am the Iron Queen.”
MIDNIGHT AT 14202 CEDAR DRIVE, LOUISIANA
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Glitch asked me, his spines glowing electric-blue in the darkness. We stood at the edge of the trees, looking out over an overgrown front yard and gravel driveway, a battered Ford at the top. I nodded wearily. The night was warm, humid, and no breeze stirred the branches of the tupelo trees around us. I wore jeans and a white top and it felt strange, being back in normal clothes. “They deserve to know the truth. I owe them that much. They need to understand why I can’t come home.”