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The Iron Knight, Page 17

Julie Kagawa

Page 17


  “Regardless—” Ariel a mock-glared at me “—it's not the same. I have a healthy respect for kelpies, but that doesn't mean I'd ever go swim-ming with one. ” She wrinkled her nose at me. “Not like you and Puck, seeing how long you could stay on that kelpie's back without drowning or getting eaten. ”

  I shrugged. “I know my abilities. Why should I fear something that probably can't kill me?”

  Ariel a sighed. “You're missing the point. Or, perhaps you're making it for me, I'm not sure. ” She shook her head, giving me a lopsided smile, and for a moment, it was like old times again. Me, Puck, and Ariel a, braving unknown territory, not knowing what was to come.

  I was suddenly aware of how close Ariel a was, our shoulders barely touching. She seemed to realize it as well , for we gazed at each other, hardly breathing. The river f lowed by us, and farther downstream Puck was shouting something, but for a quiet heartbeat it was just me and Ariel a and nothing else.

  A yel interrupted us. Puck was on the banks of the river, pul ing and yanking at his line, his face intense. From the looks of it, whatever was on the other end was enormous, making the string lurch up and down as it fought. In the center of the river, the water boiled up like a geyser, and Puck yanked harder on the string. Then, with an explosion of debris and mist, a huge serpentine form rose fifteen feet into the air, towering over Puck, holding the line in a curved talon. Blue, green and silver scales glinted in the moonlight as a dragon lowered its massive horned head—mane and moustache rippling behind it—to glare at

  Puck with somber gold eyes.

  “Oh,” Puck said in a breathless voice, staring at it from where he sat in the mud and sand. “Um. Hey. ”

  The eyes blinked. The solemn gaze shifted to Puck's left hand, narrowing. Puck looked down. “Oh, the hook. ” He grinned sheepishly. “Yeah. Sorry'bout that. No harm done, right?”

  The dragon snorted, fil ing the breeze with the scent of fish and cherry blossoms. Rippling like sea waves, it turned and coiled through the air, skimming the surface of the River of Dreams, before it sank beneath the depths once more.

  Puck stood, dusted himself off, and sauntered toward us. “Wel , that was…interesting. ” He grinned. “Guess I've been official y slapped on the wrist for fishing in the River of Dreams without a license. Hey, is that a peach?”

  The Wolf appeared sometime later, gliding from the dark with no warning whatsoever, pacing up to the fire. Puck and Ariel a were both asleep, peach pits scattered about, and I had taken first watch, sitting on a log with my sword in my lap. Grimalkin had not yet returned, but no one was really worried. It was an unspoken knowledge about the cait sith: he would reappear when it was time to leave.

  The Wolf padded into the f lickering light and f lopped down across from me with a huff. A few feet away, Puck stirred, muttering something about peaches and dragons, but didn't wake.

  The Wolf and I watched each other over the dying campfire for several minutes. “So,” the Wolf began with a f lash of bright fangs, “this quest of yours. You never told me much about it, little prince. It would be nice to know the reason behind this insane journey down the River of Dreams. I know you want to reach the End of the World, but I don't know why. What lies at the End of the World that is so important?”

  “The Testing Grounds,” I said quietly, seeing no reason to hide the fact. The Wolf pricked his ears.

  “The Testing Grounds,” he repeated, unsurprised, and nodded. “I suspected as much. Then, if you wish to go to the Testing Grounds, you must be looking for something. ” He paused, eyeing me over the f lames, eyes glowing in the darkness. “Something you lack. Something very important. Your Name? No. ” He shook his head, talking more to himself then to me. “I have a feeling you already know your True Name. What, then? You have power. You have immortality, in a sense…” He paused, and his yel ow-green eyes turned gleeful. “Ahhh, yes, I know why. There is only one thing left. ” He looked up, smiling wickedly. “You're here because of the girl, aren't you? You're hoping to earn a soul. ”

  I gave him a cold stare. “What do you know about that?”

  The Wolf barked a laugh, and Ariel a stirred. “I know you are a fool, boy,” he said, lowering his voice to a low rumble. “Souls are not meant for us.

  They tie you to the world, make you mortal, make you like them. Being human…it will drive you mad, little prince. Especial y one like you. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  The Wolf blinked slowly. “I could tel you,” he said quietly, “but it would not sway you. I can smel your determination. I know you will see this through to the end. So why waste the breath?” He yawned and sat up, testing the breeze. “The cat is close. Pity he didn't get lost. ”

  I turned just as Grimalkin emerged from the bushes nearby, giving me a bored look. “If you are waiting for sunrise, prince, you are wasting your time,” he announced without preamble, and strode past me with his tail in the air. “The light will not penetrate this far into the Deep Wyld, and we have attracted too much attention sitting around here. ”

  He did not look back as he trotted in the direction of the raft. “Wake the others,” he commanded, his voice drifting back to us. “It is time for us to go. ”

  The Wolf and I shared a look over the f lames.

  “I could eat him now,” he offered seriously. I bit down a smirk.

  “Maybe later,” I said, and got up to rouse the others.

  Puck woke easily when I kicked him in the ribs, rol ing upright with a wounded yelp, making the Wolf grin with appreciation. “Ow!” he snarled.

  “Dammit, ice-boy, why don't you just stick a knife in my ribs and be done with it?”

  “I've thought about it,” I replied, and knelt to wake Ariel a, curled up on her cloak by the fire. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, and she reminded me, always, of a sleeping cat. She stirred as I touched her shoulder, opening turquoise eyes to blink up at me sleepily.

  “Time to go?” she murmured.

  And, very suddenly, my breath caught. She looked vulnerable, lying there in the sand, her hair a silver curtain around her head. She looked slight and delicate and breakable, and I wanted to protect her. I wanted to pul her close and shield her from all the dangers in the world, and the realization made my stomach churn.

  “Come on,” I said, offering a hand to help her up. Her fingers were soft as I drew her to her feet. “The all -knowing cait sith has returned, and we've been ordered to move out. ”

  That made her smile, as I'd hoped it would, and for half a heartbeat we stood there, gazing at each other in the sand, our faces a breath apart.

  Her fingers tightened on mine, and for a moment, it was like nothing had changed, that Ariel a had never died, that we'd returned to a time when we were both happy, where there were no blood oaths between friends and no vow that stood between us.

  But, yearning for the impossible didn't make it so. Guiltily, I pulled away, breaking eye contact, and Ariel a dropped her hands, a shadow darkening her face. Without speaking, we followed Puck toward the raft, where Grimalkin already sat on the edge, thumping his tail with impatience.

  Behind us, the Wolf trailed silently, but I could feel his ancient, knowing gaze on my back.

  Under Grimalkin's impatient glare, we climbed aboard the raft, shoved off, and the current moved us out into the river once more. No one spoke, though I didn't miss the cold, angry looks I was receiving from Puck, nor the subtle glances Ariel a was shooting my way. I ignored them both, keeping my gaze straight ahead and my eyes trained on the river.

  Not long after that, the River of Dreams picked up speed. No longer sleepy and tranquil, it rushed along as if it were f leeing something, a dark and faceless terror that chased it through the night. The debris that f loated in the water and knocked against the raft had taken on a macabre feel.

  Coffins bobbed to the surface, knives and plastic dol heads went spinning by, hockey m
asks and clown shoes thumped against the front of the boat.

  “I don't like the looks of this,” Puck mused, as I barely avoided a col ision with a broken tombstone that lurched out of the water. It was the first thing he'd said for several miles, which I thought might be some sort of a record. “What happened to the f lowers and butterf lies and all the shiny, pretty dream stuff?”

  “We're nearing the nightmare stretch,” the Wolf rumbled ominously.

  “I told you. You're not going to like what you see. ”

  “Freaking fantastic. ” Puck shot him a look. “And, uh, does anyone else hear drums?”

  “That isn't funny, Puck,” Ariel a chided, but at that moment an arrow thunked into one of the logs, causing everyone to jerk upright.

  I looked to the riverbank. Smal , pale things scurried through the bushes and undergrowth, keeping pace with the raft. I caught glimpses of round, red eyes, short, bulbous tails and dark cloaks, but it was difficult to see anything through the trees and shadows.

  “Okay, natives definitely not friendly,” Puck mused, ducking as another arrow shot overhead. “Hey, cat, any idea what kind of nasties we've pissed off so royal y?”

  Grimalkin, of course, had vanished. More darts fil ed the air, lodging into the planks or f lying past us into the water, some barely missing us.

  “Dammit,” Puck snarled, “we're sitting ducks out here. ”

  With a snarl, the Wolf rose and launched himself, making the raft spin wildly as he landed like a boulder in the river. Fighting the current, he struck powerful y for the shore, ignoring the debris that slammed into him, the water rushing over his body, failing to drag him down.

  I smacked another arrow down with my sword and pulled glamour from the air, feeling it swirl around me. With a sharp gesture, I sent a f lurry of ice darts into the bushes lining the riverbank. The shards ripped through the leaves, shredding them as they passed, and painful shrieks rose into the air.

  Ariel a stood, her bow in hand, pul ing back the string. She didn't have a quiver, but glamour shimmered around her, and a gleaming ice arrow formed between her fingers just as she released the string. It f lew into the bushes with a thump, and a smal , pale body tumbled out of the ferns into the river.