The iron daughter, p.50
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       The Iron Daughter, p.50

         Part #2 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 50

 

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  Ironhorse’s Choice

  I don’t know how long the Host carried us through the sky, screeching and wailing in their unearthly voices. I don’t know if they had trods that let them move between worlds, if they could bend space and time, or if they just flew really, really fast. But what should have been hours felt like only minutes before my feet hit solid ground and I was falling forward. Puck’s grip on me tightened, jerking me to a halt before I could fall over. I clutched his arm to regain my balance, looking around dizzily.

  We stood on the outskirts of an enormous factory. Across a bright parking lot, lit with neat rows of glowing streetlamps, a huge glass, steel and cement monstrosity loomed at the edge of the pavement. Though the lot was empty, the building itself didn’t look damaged in any way: no smashed windows, no graffiti streaking the sides. I caught glimpses of things moving along the walls, flashes of blue light, like erratic fireflies. A moment later, I realized they were gremlins—hundreds, if not thousands of them—scuttling over the factory like ants. The blue lights were the glow of their fangs, hissing, shrieking and baring teeth at each other. A chill ran through me, and I shivered.

  “A gremlin nest,” Grimalkin mused, watching the swarm curiously.

  “Leanansidhe said the gremlins congregate in places that have a lot of technology. It makes sense Virus would come here, too. ”

  “I know this place,” Ash said suddenly, and we all looked at him. He was gazing at the plant with a small frown on his face. “I remember Virus talking about it when I…when I was with her. ” The frown grew deeper, and a shadow crept over his face. He shook it off. “There’s supposed to be a trod to the Iron Kingdom inside. ”

  Puck nudged my arm and pointed. “Look at that. ”

  I followed his finger to a sign at the front of the building, one of those big marble slabs with giant glowing words carved into it. “SciCorp Enterprises,” I muttered, shaking my head.

  “Coincidence?” Puck waggled his eyebrows. “I think not. ”

  “Where’s Ironhorse?” I asked, looking around.

  “This way,” Grimalkin said, trotting along the edge of the parking lot. We followed, the boys slightly blurred at the edges, telling me they were invisible to humans, and me in my very conspicuous prom dress and heels that were so not useful for raiding a giant factory, or even walking down a sidewalk. To my right, cars zoomed past us on the street; a few slowed down to honk at me or whistle, and my cheeks burned. I wished I could glamour myself invisible, or at least have had time to change into something less cumbersome. Grimalkin led us around the factory, skirting the edges of the sidewalk, to a drainage ditch that separated one lot from the other. At the bottom of the ditch, oily black water pooled from a massive storm drain, trickling through the weeds and grass. Bottles and cans littered the ground, glinting in the moonlight, but there was no sign of Ironhorse.

  “I left him right here,” Grimalkin said. Looking around briefly, he leaped to a dry rock and began shaking his paws, one by one. “We appear to be too late. It seems our impatient friend has already gone inside. ”

  A deep snort cut through the air before I could panic. “HOW FOOLISH DO

  YOU THINK I AM?” Ironhorse rumbled, bending low to clear the rim of the pipe. He was in his more human form, as there was no way he could have fit his real body inside. “THERE

  WAS A PATROL COMING, AND I WAS FORCED TO HIDE. I DO NOT BREAK THE

  PROMISES I GIVE. ” He glared at Grimalkin, but the cat only yawned and started washing his tail.

  Ash stiffened, and his hand went casually to his sword hilt. I didn’t blame him. Barring his brief stint with Virus, the last Ash had seen of Ironhorse, he was dragging us to Machina in chains. Of course, Ironhorse was wearing a different form now, but you had only to look closely to see the huge, black iron monster that lurked beneath the surface. I switched to the problem at hand, not oblivious to the dark look he was receiving from Ash. “We’re sure Virus is in there?” I asked, subtly moving between them. “So, how are we going to get inside, especially with the gremlins crawling all over the building?”

  Ironhorse snorted. “THE GREMLINS WILL NOT BOTHER US, PRINCESS. THEY ARE SIMPLE CREATURES. THEY LIVE FOR CHAOS AND

  DESTRUCTION, BUT THEY ARE COWARDLY AND WILL NOT ATTACK A POWERFUL OPPONENT. ”

  “I’m afraid I have to disagree,” Ash said, a dangerous edge to his voice now.

  “You yourself lead an army of gremlins in Machina’s realm, or have you forgotten? They don’t attack powerful opponents? I seem to recall a wave of them trying to tear me apart in the mines. ”

  “That’s right,” I echoed, frowning. “And what about the time the gremlins kidnapped me and hauled me off to meet you? Don’t tell me the gremlins aren’t dangerous. ”

  “NO. ” Ironhorse shook his head. “LET ME CLARIFY. BOTH TIMES, THE

  GREMLINS WERE UNDER MACHINA’S COMMAND. LORD MACHINA WAS THE

  ONLY ONE WHO COULD CONTROL THEM, THE ONLY ONE THEY EVER LISTENED

  TO. WHEN HE DIED, THEY REVERTED TO THEIR NORMAL, FERAL STATE. THEY

  ARE NO THREAT TO US, NOW. ”

  “What about Virus?” Puck asked.

  “VIRUS SEES THEM AS VERMIN. EVEN IF SHE COULD CONTROL

  THEM, SHE WOULD RATHER LET HER DRONES DO THE WORK THAN STOOP TO

  DEALING WITH ANIMALS. ”

  “Well, this should be easy, then. ” Puck smirked. “We’ll just stroll in the front door, waltz up to Virus, grab the scepter, have some tea and save the world before breakfast. Silly me, thinking it would be hard. ”

  “What I think Puck is trying to say,” I said, shooting Puck a frown, “is—what will we do about Virus when we find her? She’s got the scepter. Isn’t it supposed to be powerful?”

  “Don’t worry about that. ” Ash’s voice raised the hairs on my neck. “I’ll take care of Virus. ”

  Puck rolled his eyes. “Very nice, Prince Cheerful, but there is one problem. We have to get inside first. How do you propose we do that?”

  “You’re the expert. ” Ash glanced at Puck, and his mouth twitched into a smirk of his own. “You tell me. ”

  Grimalkin sighed and rose, his tail lashing his flanks. “The hope of the Nevernever,” he said, eyeing each of us disdainfully. “Wait here. I will check the place out. ”

  HE HADN’T BEEN GONE LONG when Puck stiffened and Ash jerked up, his hand going to his sword. “Someone’s coming,” he warned, and we scrambled into the ditch, my gown catching on weeds and jagged pieces of glass. Sloshing into the pipe, I grimaced as the cold, filthy water soaked my shoes and dress. At this rate, it wouldn’t survive the night. Two figures marched past our hiding spot, dressed in familiar black armor with spines growing from the shoulders and back. The faint smell of rot and putrefying flesh drifted into the tube at their passing. I stifled a cough and put my hand over my nose.

  “Rowan’s Thornguards,” Ash murmured grimly as the pair moved on. Frowning, Puck peeked over his shoulder.

  “Wonder how many are in there?”

  “I’d guess a few squads at least,” Ash replied. “I imagine Rowan wanted to send his best to take over the realm. ”

  “You are right,” Grimalkin said, suddenly materializing beside us. He perched on a cinder block so as not to touch the water, keeping his tail straight up. “There are many Thornguards inside, along with several Iron fey and a few dozen human drones. And gremlins, of course. The factory is crawling with them, but no one seems to pay them much attention. ”

  “Did you see Virus or the scepter?” I asked.

  “No. ” Grimalkin sat down, curling his tail tightly around his feet. “However, there are two Thornguards stationed at a back door who will not let anyone past. ”

  At Virus’s name, Ash narrowed his eyes. “Can we fight our way through?”

  “I would not advise it,” Grimalkin replied. “It appears some of them are
using iron weapons—steel swords and crossbows with iron bolts and such. It would only take one well-placed shot to kill you. ”

  Puck frowned. “Fey using iron weapons? You think Virus has them all bugged?”

  “Something far worse, I’m afraid. ” Ash’s face was like stone as he stared at the factory. “I was forced into service. Virus didn’t give me a choice. The Thornguards are acting on their own. Like Rowan. They want to destroy the Nevernever and give it to the Iron fey. ”

  Puck’s eyebrows shot up. “The hell? Why?”

  “Because they think they can become like Virus,” I replied, thinking back to what Edgebriar had said, remembering the crazed, doomed look in his eye. “They believe it’s only a matter of time before Faery fades away entirely. So the only way to survive is to become like the Iron fey. They wear a metal ring beneath their gloves to prove their loyalty, and because they think it will make them immune to the effects. But it’s just killing them slowly. ”

  “Huh. Well, that’s…absolutely horrifying. ” Puck shook his head in disbelief.

  “Still, we have to get in there somehow, iron weapons or no. Can we glamour ourselves to look like them?”

  “It won’t hold up against all the iron,” Ash muttered, deep in thought.

  “I might have a better idea,” Grimalkin said. “There are several glass skylights on the roof of the factory. You could map the layout of the building from there, maybe even see where Virus is. ”

  That sounded like a good idea. But… “How do we get up there?” I asked, staring at the looming glass-and-metal wall of the factory. “Puck can fly, and I’m sure Ash can get up there, but Ironhorse and I are a little more earthbound. ”

  Grimalkin nodded sagely. “Normally, I would agree. But tonight, it seems the Fates are on our side. There is a window cleaner’s platform on the far side of the building. ”

  EVEN WITH Ironhorse’s assurance that the gremlins wouldn’t bother us, we approached with extreme caution. The memory of being kidnapped by the gremlins, their sharp claws digging into my skin, their freaky, maniacal laughter and buzzing voices, still burned hot in my mind. One had even lived in my iPod before it was broken, and Machina had used it to communicate with me even within the borders of Arcadia. Gremlins were sneaky, evil, little monsters, and I didn’t trust them one bit.