The Iron Queen, Page 36Julie Kagawa
“How are you doing this, human?” he demanded, lashing his tail in agitation.
“You have been here only once, and it is impossible for mortals to memorize directions so quickly. How do you know you are going the right way?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, taking us down yet another side passage. “I just do. ”
Puck’s bark of laughter startled me. “See?” he crowed, pointing at Grimalkin, who flattened his ears at him. “You see how irritating that is? Remember that, next time you—hey!” he called as Grimalkin disappeared. “Yeah, I can’t see you, but I know you can still hear me!”
We were getting closer to the packrats’ nest, a fact I knew because of the amount of junk that started appearing in random places: a broken keyboard here, a bicycle horn there. Soon the tunnels were strewn with it, making us watch where we put our feet. Unease gnawed at me; this far in, we should’ve run into a packrat or two. I had been looking forward to meeting them again, wondering if they remembered me. But the tunnels felt empty and cold, abandoned. And they had been that way for a while.
Abruptly, the tunnel fell away, and we stepped into a huge cavern, with mountains of junk piled farther than we could see. Making our way past the enormous trash heaps, I strained my eyes and ears, hoping to catch a glimpse of the packrats, hear them babble in their funny language. But, in my heart, I knew it was futile. I couldn’t sense any spark of life in this place. The packrats were long gone.
“Hey,” Puck said suddenly, his voice echoing about the cavern. “Is that…a throne?”
I drew in a sharp breath. A chair made entirely of junk sat atop a smaller mound of rubbish in the center of the room. On a whim, I walked over to the mound and crouched at the foot of the throne, and began sifting through the debris.
“Um…princess?” Puck asked. “What are you doing?”
“Aha!” Straightening, I raised my hand in triumph, brandishing my old iPod. Ash and Puck both gave me confused looks as I tossed the broken device on the mound again. “I just wanted to see if it was still here. We can go now. ”
“I take it you’ve been here before,” Ash said quietly, nodding to the chair.
“And that throne wasn’t empty the first time, was it? Who sat there?”
“His name was Ferrum,” I replied, remembering the old, old man with silver hair that nearly touched the floor. “He said he was the first Iron King, the one Machina overthrew when he took over. The packrats still worshipped him as king, even though he was terrified of Machina. ” I felt a faint prick of sadness, staring at the empty seat. “I guess he finally died, and the packrats left when he was gone. I wish I knew where they went. ”
“There is no time to wonder about that now,” Grimalkin said, appearing on the throne cushion, looking disturbingly natural gazing down at us. “This room still stinks of powerful Iron magic. It is corroding your amulets faster than normal. We must press on, or they will stop working right here. ”
Alarmed, I looked at Ash’s crystal and saw he was right. The amulet was nearly black. “Hurry,” I said, jogging from the throne room with the boys at my heels, back into the endless labyrinth of stone. “I think we’re halfway there. ”
A FEW HOURS PASSED, or at least I thought they did—it was so hard to tell time underground—and the fuel in the lantern burned low. We stopped to rest a couple of times, but I found it difficult to stay in one place, becoming restless and antsy until we started moving again. Puck joked that something must be summoning me again, and I didn’t know if he was wrong. Certainly something was drawing me, growing stronger and stronger the closer we got, making it impossible to rest or think until we reached our destination. And when the tunnels finally ended, dropping away into a monstrous precipice spanned by a narrow stone bridge, I knew I was almost there.
“Machina’s fortress,” I said softly, gazing across the chasm, “is on the other side of the bridge. This is the way I took to reach it. We’re almost directly underneath the tower. ”
Puck whistled, the sound bouncing off the walls. “And, you think the false king will be here, princess?”
“He has to be,” I said, hoping my convictions were right. “It ends at the beginning. Machina is the one who started it all. ”
I hoped. Back when I first came here with the packrats, the area below the tower was known as the Cogworks, due to the massive iron gears, cogs, and pistons that clanked and ground their way along the walls and ceiling, making the ground vibrate. The noise had been deafening, as some of the larger gears had been three times my size. Now, everything was silent, the giant gears cracked and broken and strewn about, as if the entire Cogworks had collapsed on itself. Some lay smashed under huge boulders, evidence that the ceiling had fallen in, as well. When Machina died, his tower had crumbled, destroying everything beneath it. I wondered what it would look like on the surface, how much of the Iron King’s influence had survived.
Not much, I was afraid.
We made our way over the bridge, where the stone turned to iron grating, and started picking our way through the smashed clockwork, searching for a way up. As I made my way through the rubble, I noticed strange gnarled roots that hadn’t been here before, coiled around the gears and dangling from the ceilings. I could feel them pulsing with life.
“Over here,” Ash said, waving us over. A bent iron staircase spiraled up from the rubble, ascending toward a metal grate in the ceiling. I felt a surge of excitement and apprehension. Whatever had been calling me was somewhere overhead. Probably it was the false king and we were walking right into his trap, but I had to see what was up there. The boys drew their weapons, and I pulled my blade, feeling my heart pound in my chest, whether in nervousness or excitement, I couldn’t tell. With Ash leading the way and Puck close at my back, we ascended the stairs to Machina’s tower.
THE RUINS OF THE IRON KING
The last time I pushed open the trapdoor to Machina’s tower, I’d been blasted by the heat of a dozen furnaces as I entered the boiler room. In the fiery red glow, dwarves in baggy suits and oxygen masks had shambled back and forth, wielding wrenches and checking leaky pipes. Now, everything was silent, the great furnaces dark and cold. Beams had fallen from the ceiling, pipes were bent and broken, and ash coated everything with a fine gray powder. Those strange roots were also everywhere, snaking in from the ruins above. Through the holes in the ceiling, I could see a section of the tower walls, shiny and metallic.
“Place looks abandoned to me,” Puck said, tracing a finger through the dust, drawing a smiley face with the tongue sticking out. “I sure hope this is the right spot, princess. ”
I glanced up through the ceiling, following the roots until they vanished from sight. “Whatever we’re looking for, it’s up there. Come on. ”
Using roots and the pile of rocks, we climbed up one last floor. On solid ground again, I straightened and gazed around at what had been Machina’s tower. It was a mess, a maze of iron beams, broken glass, and crumpled walls. Gears lay scattered about, rusting and broken, wires and cables dangled overhead, and shattered pipes dripped water and oil onto the floor. Numerous suits of armor, bearing the symbol of a barbed-wire crown on the breastplate, were scattered throughout the ruins like toy soldiers. I shivered, imagining rotting skeletons within those metal suits, but Ash kicked a helmet open and found it empty. It seemed Machina’s Iron knights followed the same rule as the rest of Faery: when they died, they simply ceased to exist.
Everything was still, as if the very ruins were holding their breath.
“Looks like nobody’s home,” Puck said, turning in a slow circle.
“Hellooooooooo? Anybody here?”
“Be quiet, Goodfellow,” Ash growled, peering into the shadows with narrowed eyes. “We’re not alone. ”
“Yeah? How do you figure that, prince? I don’t see anyone. ”
“The cait sith has disappeared. ”
Meghan Chase, this way.
A faint glow emitted from the center of the ruins, drawing me to it like a moth to a flame. Without saying anything, I started walking toward it, ducking under beams and around half-standing walls, heading deeper into the maze.
“Princess! Dammit, hold up!”
They scrambled after me, muttering curses, but I barely heard them. It was here, whatever was calling me. It was just ahead…
And then, the walls, ruins, and rubble fell away, revealing an enormous tree in the center of the tower.
The oak soared into the air, massive and proud, the trunk so wide four people couldn’t wrap their arms around it. Its huge branches spread over the tower like a roof, blocking out the open sky. The whole tree glimmered like the edge of a blade, metallic and shiny, leaves flashing in the dim light like tinsel.
“Machina,” I whispered, and stared at the tree in amazement as Puck and Ash finally caught up. “Is it really…could it be?” Easing forward, I walked to the roots of the oak, gazing up at the trunk. Several feet overhead, a stick jutted out of the metal, straight, thin, and—unlike the rest of the tree—made of wood.
“There’s the arrow! Oh…oh, wow. This really is him. ”
“Wait, Machina was a tree?” Puck scratched the back of his neck. “I’m a little lost here, princess. ”
“He turned into a tree when I stabbed him with the Witchwood arrow. ” I was close to the former Iron King now, so close I could see my distorted reflection in the trunk. “I never imagined it would survive the tower’s collapse. ” On impulse, I reached out and touched it, pressing my palm to the shiny surface. This is no longer the Iron King, Meghan Chase. I wasn’t really surprised to hear his voice in my head again, though I could feel the power thrumming below my hand. Though the tree was infused with iron all the way to its heart, it wasn’t dying. In fact, it was flourishing. This oak is only the physical remains of his power, and yours. As I told you before, I am with you now.