A/N - Greetings readers! The part in between the numerous X's is directly from the book Iron King by Julia Kagawa ( Pages 337-342). I thought it would be useful to have this here to refresh everyone's mind about the setting and the dialogue that happens before Meghan makes her decision, and where my alternate ending begins. For those not interested in the refresher, just skip ahead. No copy right infringement intended. Enjoy!
The figure on the throne threw me a smile as sharp as razors. "Meghan Chase," He murmured, his scintillating voice echoing over the garden. "Welcome. I've been expecting you."
I gently laid Ash down, ignoring his protests, and stepped forward, shielding him behind me. My heart pounded. I didn't know what I expected the Iron King to look like, but it wasn't this. The figure on the throne stood tall and elegant, with flowing silver hair and the pointed ears of the fey nobility. He faintly resembled Oberon, refined and graceful, yet incredibly powerful. Unlike Oberon and the finery of the Summer Court, the Iron King wore a stark black coat that flapped in the wind. Energy crackled around him, like thunder with no sound, and I caught flashes of lightening in his slanted black eyes. A metal stud glittered in one ear, a Bluetooth phone in the other. His face was beautiful and arrogant, all sharp planes and angles; I felt I could cut myself on his cheek if I got too close. And yet, when he smiled, it lit up the whole room. A strange, silvery cloak lay across his shoulders, wriggling slightly as if it were alive.
I snatched the bow and arrow off the ground, bringing it to bear on the Iron King. This might be the only chance I got. The Witchwood arrow pulsed in my hands as I drew back on the sting, aiming the tip at Machina's chest. The knights shouted in alarm and started forward, but they were too late. I released the string with a yell of triumph, seeing it speed right on target, toward the heart of the Iron King.
And Machina's cloak came alive.
Silvery cables unraveled with lightening speed, springing from his shoulders and spine. They spread around Machina like a halo of metal wings, wickedly barbed on one end, needle points glinting in the light. They whipped forward to protect the Iron King, knocking the Witchwood arrow away, sending it flying in another direction. I watched the arrow strike a metal tree and snap in two, fluttering to the ground in different pieces. Someone screamed in rage and horror, and I realized it was me.
The guards rushed us, their swords raised, and I watched them with certain detachment. I was aware of Ash, trying to get to his feet to protect me, and knew it was too late. The arrow had failed, and we were about to die.
Machina's voice wasn't loud. He didn't scream or bellow the order, but every knight jerked to a halt as if pulled by invisible string. The Iron King floated down from the throne, the cables writhing slowly behind him like hungry snakes. His feet touched the floor, and he smiled at me, completely unconcerned with the fact that I had just tried to kill him.
"Leave," he told the knights without taking his eyes from me. Several jerked their heads up in surprise.
"My king?" stammered one, and I recognized his voice. Quintus, one of the knights who'd been with Ironhorse in the mines. I wondered if Tertius was here, too.
"The lady is uncomfortable with your presence," Machina went on, not looking away from me. "I do not wish her to be uncomfortable. Go. I will take care of her, and the Winter prince."
Machina didn't move. One of his cables whipped out, almost too fast to see, punching through the knights armor and out his back. The cable lifted Quintus high in the air and threw him into the wall. Quintus clanged against the metal and slumped motionless to the ground, a jagged hole through his breastplate. Dark, oily blood pooled beneath him.
"Leave," Machina repeated softly, and the knights scrambled to obey. They filed out through the door and slammed it shut, and we were along with the Iron King.
Machina regarded me with depth-less black eyes. "You are as beautiful as I imagined," he said, walking forward, his cables coiling behind him. "Beautiful, fiery, determined." He stopped a few yards away the cables settling back into that living cloak. "Perfect."
With a final glance at Ash, still slumped next to the fountain, I stepped forward. "I'm here for my brother," I said, relieved my voice didn't tremble. "Please, let him go. Let me take him home."
Machina regarded me silently, then gestured behind him. A loud clanking began, and something rose out of the ground beside his throne, as if it were borne on an elevator. A large, wrought-iron birdcage came into view. Inside…
"Ethan!" I started forward, but Machina's cables whipped out, blocking my path. Ethan gripped the bars of the cage, peering out with frightened blue eyes. His voice rang shrilly over the courtyard.
Behind me, Ash growled a curse and tried to stand. I turned on Machina furiously. "Let him go! He's only a little kid! What do you want with him, anyway?"
"My dear you misunderstand me." Machina's cables waved threatening, moving me back. "I did not take your brother because I wanted him. I did it because I knew it would bring you here."
"Why?" I demanded, whirling on him. "Why kidnap Ethan? Why not just take me instead? Why drag him into all this?"
Machina smiled. "You were well protected, Meghan Chase. Robin Goodfellow is a formidable bodyguard, and I could not risk taking you without drawing attention to myself and my realm. Fortunately, your brother had no such protection. Better to draw you here, of you own volition, than risk the wrath of Oberon and the Seelie Court. Besides…" Machina's eyes narrowed to black slits, though he still smiled at me. "I needed to test you, make certain you were truly the one. If you could not reach my tower on your own, you were not worthy."
"Worthy of what?" Suddenly, I was very tired. Tired and desperate to save my brother, take him away from this madness before if consumed him. I couldn't win; Machina has us at checkmate, but I would get Ethan home, at least. "What do you want, Machina?" I asked wearily, feeling the Iron King step closer. "Whatever it is, just let me take Ethan back to our world. You said you wanted me. Here I am. But let me take my brother home."
"Of course," Machina soothed. "But first, let us make a deal."
I froze, everything going still inside me. A deal with the Iron King, in exchange for my brother's life. I wondered what he would ask for. Somehow, I knew it would cost me either way.
"Meghan, don't," Ash growled, pulling himself up by the fountain, ignoring the burns to his hands. Machina ignored him.
"What kind of deal?" I asked softly."
The Iron King stepped closer. "I've watched you for sixteen years," he murmured, "waiting for the day you would finally open your eyes and see us. Waiting for the day you would come to me. Your father would have blinded you to this world forever. He is afraid of your power, afraid of your potential - a half-fey who is immune to iron, yet has the blood of the summer king in her veins. So much potential." His gaze lingered on Ash, finally on his feet, and dismissed him just as quickly. "Mab realized your power, which is why she wants you so much. Which is why she sent her best to capture you. But even she cannot offer what I can."
Machina closed the last few steps between us and took my hand. His touch was cool, and I felt power humming through him, like currents of electricity. "I want you to be my queen, Meghan Chase. I offer you my kingdom, my subjects, myself. I want you to rule at my side. The oldbloods are obsolete. Their time is done. It is time for a new order to rise up, stronger and better than the ancient ones. Only say yes, and you will live forever, Queen of the Fey. Your brother can go home. I'll even let you keep your prince if you wish, though I fear he may not adapt well to our kingdom. Regardless, you belong here, at my side. Isn't that what you've always wanted? To belong?"
I hesitated. To rule with Machina, to become a queen. No one would tease or mock me anymore, I would have scores of creatures ready to jump at my bidding, and I would finally be the one on top. I would finally be the most loved. But then I saw the trees, twisted and metallic, and remembered the terrible, barren wasteland in the wyldwood. Machina would corrupt the entire Nevernever. All the plants would die, or become twisted versions of themselves. Oberon, Grimalkin, Puck: they would fade away with the rest of the Nevernever. Until only gremlins, bugs, and the iron fey remained.
I swallowed. And, even though I already knew the answer, I asked, "What if I refuse?"
Machina's expression didn't falter. "Then your prince will die. And your brother will die. Or, perhaps, I will make him one of my playthings, half human, half machine. The eradication of the oldbloods will begin with or without you, my dear. I am giving you a choice of leading it or being consumed by it."
My desperation grew. Machina reached up and stroked my face, running his fingers down my cheek. "Is it really so terrible to rule, my love?" he asked, tilting my chin up to look at him. "Throughout millennia, both humans and fey have done it. Weeded out the weak to make room for the strong. The oldbloods and the iron fey cannot exist together, you know this. Oberon and Mab would destroy us if they knew about us. How is that any different?" He brushed a kiss over my lips, feather light and vibrating with energy. "Come. One word to send your brother home, to save the prince you love. Look." He waved a hand and a great iron archway rose out of the ground. On the other side, I could see my house, shimmering through the portal, before it faded from view. I gasped and Machina smiled. "I will send him home, now, if you only say yes. One word, and you will be my queen forever."
The answer was pure and simple. A hard choice, but obvious.
I closed my eyes, ignoring the king's touch as I concentrated on the details of the bargain. "If I say yes, you have to return Ash to his home, too. Unharmed. " I say softly, almost bitterly. I held no delusions of keeping him here.
"Of course," Machina said, his voice low and melodic.
I clenched my fist, willing myself to open my eyes again and meet Machina's. Solemn resolution rested heavily on my shoulders, but I tried not to think too much about it.
"Then I agree to the contract," my words were surprising level, detached as if I wasn't sealing my fate as monarch.
Flashing me with an almost predatory smile, the Iron King stepped back, breaking our tense proximity. "You have made the right choice, Meghan Chase." With a slight motion of his hand, he summoned another trod, the stone grating and grinding as it moved to the surface. In another flick of his finger the cage that held Ethan released him, the bars contorting to form a door. Ethan warily stared at bars before sliding out.
"Meggie!" He cried, hesitating. He glanced between me and the Iron King, caught between fear of the faery and the urge to hug me to death.
"You may say your goodbyes, Meghan Chase." With that, Machina simply left, murmuring something into the blue tooth. I blinked, a little surprised by his abrupt and almost casual departure.
Ethan sprinted across the courtyard and threw himself at me, wrapping his scrawny arms around my neck and squeezing with all his strength.
"Hey squirt," I clutched him back fiercely, trying to swallow the lump that formed in my throat.
"You can't stay with him. You have to come back home!" He said desperately.
"Sorry kiddo, but if I do that he'd probably kill all of us," I tried to laugh, but the sound that came out of my throat was strangled and hollow. I pulled away from him, wiping the tears that where pouring down his cheeks. "But I'll see you again. Hell, he said I can have everything I wanted, I can probably visit once things get settled." I tried to smile encouragingly and Ethan nodded grudgingly – he was always understanding of every situation. I wasn't sure if family visits where part of the package, but if there was a trod and if I was to be a queen, I couldn't see why Machina would deny me a visit once things calmed down. I glanced behind Ethan, where Ash had stopped standing and now sat on the rust speckled stones unsteadily, swaying back and forth as if it was difficult to balance.
I took Ethan's hand, quickly making my way towards the Unseelie prince and knelt before him. His breathing was ragged, and when his mercury eyes met mine they were pained. "Ash..." I didn't know what to say.
"Take your brother home," he said weakly. I nodded.
I didn't want to say goodbye, not so soon after finding him. But I knew it was for the best - his blue eyes had a haunted look to them, making me wonder what he saw and what the fey did to him. Through my weariness, the first flare of anger boiled in my veins. Even though I was to be queen, Machina had done something terrible by dragging Ethan into the world of faery - who knows what awful things he saw or what they did to him. Machina is going to pay for using my brother to trap me in a bargain. I'll make him wish he never went through the trouble of getting me here.
As we hugged goodbye, I looked longingly at the trod that led home. I'll see mom and Luke again… I hope.
"Be good squirt. Tell mom I love her 'kay? And not to worry."
He sniffled an "'Okay" as I kissed him on the forehead.
"I love you Meggie,"
"Love you too brat."
With that I gently led him to the trod, that unswallowable lump in my throat growing to the size of a walnut. It made breathing difficult. I saw Ethan step through the metal archway, glancing behind him before the trod slid beneath the ground, covering the last traces of the world I used to belong to. My hand came back wet when I wiped my cheek, noticing for the first time the hot tears that trickled down my face. All of this trouble to get here, to save Ethan, and I hardly get a breath of time with him. It wasn't fair. But then again, I could hardly remember the last time anything "fair" happened.
"Meghan," Ash coughed, spitting out blood, "I cannot go back without you."
I hurried towards him, a little embarrassed. While I was saying my goodbyes he was bleeding and getting weaker by the minute. Kneeling down, my hands fluttered uneasily above his wounds. They were bad, the iron burns too numerous to count. I began tearing at the bottom of my shirt to make an impromptu bandage, but the fabric wasn't giving. "You're hurt. You need to go back and find a healer."
"Not without y -"
"I can't Ash." I snapped, stress getting the better of me. Why was it so easy to make tear a shirt in the movies but nearly impossible in real life? I immediately softened my tone, "I already made the deal, I'm stuck here."
"No. You're not. You're coming with me. Or did you forget about ourcontract?" My hands froze. Crap.He got me to the Iron King, and in return I was supposed to return with him to his kingdom without a fight. But how will I do that now?
"But... I have… shit!" I angrily tugged at my shirt and it finally ripped. Tearing the bottom hem free, I gingerly took Ash's wrist where the iron manacles left an oozing mess of blood and charred skin. He winced, but didn't object. "I don't know what to do anymore." I sighed in frustration, on the verge of tears again. The heady smell of blood was making me nauseous. "I can't just go skipping away to Tir Na Nog."
Someone coughed behind me. I jerked in surprise, accidentally tugging on the bandage which made Ash flinch.
"Meghan Chase?" it was one of Machina's knights, his armored chest bearing the bob wire crown. Be bent a stiff bow "I am to lead you to your chambers."
I shifted uneasily. How much did he hear? "Alright can you just give me a moment?" He bowed again. It was going to take me a while to get used to this whole bowing thing.
It was then I noticed the knights surrounding the court yard once more, as if they simply came into being and never left. They ignored their fallen comrade, who lay unmoving in his pool of crimson. It was also when I noticed the two knights guarding the trod to Ash's homeland. He saw them too. Even if we did have a contract, it didn't look like I was getting to Tir Na Nog today.
Abruptly, Ash took my wrist and jerked me towards him. I barely had time to squeak in alarm before I found my cheek pressed against the side of his face, his arms squeezing tightly around me. My heart nearly fell out of my chest when his lips were suddenly my ear. I almost didn't understand the whispered words that flowed from his mouth – my brain was too distracted by his close proximity and the brush of his breath and lower lip against my ear.
"I will come back for you, no matter what it takes." His voice was intense with determination.
And then, as suddenly as it happened, he released me. "Ash you'll…"
His quick silver eyes warned me not to say anything. We probably said too much already, who knew how much the guards over heard. Swallowing unsaid words down my throat, I helped him up, still in a daze as he threw an arm around my shoulders so I could half drag him to the gate.
We hardly took three steps when two knights were there, bobbing into another stiff bow. "We shall take him from here." Reluctantly, I let them take the wounded prince, but not before he was able to reassuringly squeeze my shoulders. Our eyes met for one last time, and there I saw a resolve made of steel. For one second, it gave me a rush of exhilaration and hope.
The guards led him to the giant double doors that marked it as the trod to his home, careful not to touch his skin with their metal plated hands. Ash didn't look back when he dislodged himself from the guards and pushed open the doors, stepping into the winter wonderland beyond.
When the trod disappeared beneath the court yard, I was left alone with the retinue of fey. I hardly noticed when one of the knights gently guided me away, taking me to my chambers.
He was coming for me, for better or for worse. Part of me was reeling in joy, the other part a jumble of fear, worry and pessimism. Of course he was coming back for me because of the deal we made, but part of wanted to believe it was more than just a contract that was bringing him back. It was hard to read what kind of passion he showed for the brief instant. And how will he make it through the iron kingdom again? Will he survive? And after Ash got me out…
So lost in my thoughts I almost missed the figure kneeling by the twisted iron tree picking up a few objects from the ground; no doubt the leftovers from the short assassination attempt. With gut wrenching realization, I saw the figure pick up a shard of white wood.
The witch wood arrow!
The knight straightened. For a split second I believed that it was Ash, and in the next second I realized that it was actually Tertius. He slipped the broken wood into his satchel. He glanced in my direction, just before I entered a tunnel and left the court yard.
Everything was spinning out of control – I failed to kill the King and save Nevernever, the remnants of the lethal weapon now in Machina's possession. I'm forced to be queen, bound by a contract to inevitably attempt an escape to Tir Na Nog (where I would become prisoner or even killed). I was a passenger of an airplane on fire, locked in a death spiral made of oaths and impossible tasks. The only question is when I'll inevitably hit the ground.