The Iron Knight, Page 18Julie Kagawa
“Nice shot, Ari,” Puck crowed as the Wolf drew close to shore. The hail of arrows thinned, and the marauders shrieked as the Wolf dragged his dripping black form out of the water and shook vigorously. Yelp-ing, they f led, scattering into the bushes, and the Wolf lunged after them with a roar.
“Go get 'em, Wolfman!” Puck cheered, as the attackers vanished into the trees. “Looks like he scared them off, whatever they were. ”
I saw movement on the banks ahead and narrowed my eyes. “Don't be too sure about that. ”
Something smal and pale like the other forms scrambled onto a rock jutting out over the water. Seen clearly, it looked like a squat, bipedal newt with slimy white skin and a froglike mouth ful of teeth. Its beady eyes were filmy and blue, unlike the bright crimson of the others, and it wore a strange headdress on its naked skul .
Raising a staff in both claws, it started chanting.
“That can't be good,” Puck muttered.
“Ari,” I cal ed, ducking as another hail of darts f lew at us from the bush. The natives were definitely protecting their shaman. “Take him down now!”
Ari pulled back and released an arrow, a perfect shot that would've gone right through the shaman's chest had another creature not leaped in front of him, taking the lethal blow itself. I f lung a hail of shards at him, but several newt creatures sprang up and huddled around him, shrieking as the darts tore into them, but not moving. The chanting continued as the raft drifted by, taking us out of reach.
Around us, the water started to boil.
I drew my sword as a monstrous coil broke the surface of the river, black and shiny and thicker than my waist. Puck yelped, and Ariel a cringed back. A huge head reared out of the water with a screech and an explosion of nightmare debris. Not a snake or a dragon; this monster had a round, lipless mouth lined with sharp teeth, built for sucking instead of biting. A giant lamprey, and where there was one, there were usual y more.
“Puck!” I yel ed, as the raft spun wildly and two more giant eels rose out of the water. “If we end up in the water, we're dead! Don't let them crush the boat!”
The first lamprey lunged at me, snaking in for an attack. I stood my ground and slashed upward with my blade, cutting through its f leshy maw. The lamprey screamed and reared back, mouth split in two, thrashing wildly. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ariel a shoot an arrow right into the mouth of another eel, which convulsed fiercely and sank back into the depths. The third lunged for Puck, mouth gaping, but at the last moment Puck leaped aside, and the lamprey struck the boat instead, razor teeth sinking into the wood. It started to pul back, but not before Puck's dagger f lashed down, stabbing the top of its head.
Shrieking, the eel coiled its entire body around the raft, squeezing hard. The planks creaked and started to snap in places as the mortal y wounded lamprey clung to it with the strength of death. I spun and sliced through a coil, cutting it in two, but with a final snap, the raft splintered, f lying outward in an explosion of wood and dumping me into the river.
The current caught me instantly, dragging me down. Stil clutching my sword, I fought to the surface, cal ing out for Ariel a and Puck. I could see the lamprey as it sank below the surface, coiled around the remains of the raft, but my companions were nowhere to be seen.
Something struck me in the back of the head. My vision went dark for a moment, and I fought to keep my head above water, knowing that if I lost consciousness now, I would die. Brief ly, I hoped Puck, Ariel a and Grimalkin were all right; that they would survive, even if I did not.
Then the current pulled me under again, and the River of Dreams took me away.
I awoke on my stomach, my cheek pressed into something hard, river water soaking my clothes. There was a dul roar in my ears, which I quickly discovered was the river behind me. I listened for other things, for familiar voices and the rustle of movement, for a snide feline voice asking if I was finally awake, but there was nothing. It seemed I was alone.
Slowly, I pushed myself up, testing for sharp pain and broken bones, anything that seemed out of place. Though there was a gash across my forehead and a throbbing ache in my skul , nothing seemed seriously injured. I was lucky this time. I hoped the others were as fortunate.
My sword lay in the mud a few feet away. As I reached for it, I became aware that I was not alone after all .
“Good,” rumbled the Wolf, somewhere above me. “You're stil alive. It would be extremely annoying if I had to tel Mab I let her son drown while on this ridiculous quest. Dragging your carcass out of the river isn't something I'd want to do again, prince. I hope it doesn't become a habit. ”
He was lying on the bank a few yards away, watching me with intense yel ow-green eyes. As I pulled myself up, he nodded approval and rose, his pelt stil spiky and damp from his plunge into the water.
“Where are the others?” I asked, gazing around for their bodies. The Wolf snorted.
“Gone,” he said simply. “The river took them. ”
I stared at him, letting the words sink in. Loss was nothing new to me.
I'd shielded myself from the worst of the pain; not caring for anything ensured I wouldn't miss it when it was gone. Attachments, as I'd learned, had no place in the Unseelie Court. But I could not believe that Puck and Ariel a were gone.
“You didn't try to help them?”
Shaking himself, the Wolf sneezed and looked back at me, unconcerned. “I had no interest in saving the others,” he said easily. “Even if I could have gotten to them in time, my only interest is keeping you alive. I warned them f loating downstream was a bad idea. I suppose we'l have to find another way to the End of the World. ”
“No,” I said quietly, looking across the foaming river. “They're not dead. ”
The Wolf curled a lip. “You don't know that, prince. You can't be sure. ”
“I'd know,” I insisted. Because if they were gone, I'd have no way to reach the Testing Grounds myself, no way to honor my vow to
Meghan. If Puck was dead, my world would become as cold and lifeless as the darkest night in the Winter Court. And if I had let Ariel a die a second time, it would've been better if the Wolf had left me to drown, because the pain would do more then crush me this time—it would kill me.
I let out a breath, raking a hand through my wet hair. “We're going to find them,” I said, looking back down the river. The water roared and foamed, clawing angrily at the rocks, rushing by at a breakneck speed.
The Wolf was right— it was difficult to imagine anyone surviving that, once the raft had smashed apart, but Robin Goodfel ow was an expert at survival, and I had to believe Ariel a was safe with him. Grimalkin I wasn't even worried about. “Believe what you will ,” I continued, glancing at the Wolf, “but Goodfel ow is stil alive. He's harder to kill than you might think…perhaps even harder to kill than you. ”
“I very much doubt that. ” But his voice was f lat with resignation, and he huffed noisily, shaking his head. “Come on, then. ” With a last show of teeth, the Wolf turned and started padding down the riverbank.
“We waste time standing about here. If they survived, they will likely be farther downstream. However…” He paused and glanced back. “If we reach the Fal s of Oblivion, you might as well give up. Nothing can survive that plunge. Not even me. ”
He turned and continued loping along the riverbank, head lifted to the wind to pick up the scent of his prey. With one last look at the foaming River of Dreams, I fol owed.
For an indefinite amount of time, we walked along the riverbank, searching for any sign, any hint of Puck or Ariel a. The Wolf loped tirelessly along with his muzzle pointed sometimes at the ground and sometimes at the sky, tasting the wind, while I searched the bank for footprints, broken twigs, overturned rocks, any sign of life.
Something near the edge of the water caught my eye, and I hurrie
d over. A splintered length of wood lay trapped between two rocks at the water's edge. It was part of the raft, bobbing limply in the waves, smashed almost beyond recognition. I stared at it for a moment, refusing to acknowledge what that could mean, and turned away to continue the search.
Farther downstream, the Wolf suddenly came to a stop. Lowering his head, he sniffed around the rocks and mud, then straightened with a growl, baring his teeth.
I hurried over. “Did you find them?”
“No. But a great many creatures were here recently. Smal things, very unpleasant smel . Slimy. Faintly reptilian. ”
I remembered the pale, newtlike creatures, shooting at us down the riverbank. And their shaman, cal ing up river nightmares to crush the boat.
“What are they?”
The Wolf shook his bushy head. “Hobyahs. ”
“Hobyahs,” I repeated, recal ing the tale of the smal , unpleasant fey.
“Hobyahs are extinct. At least, that's what the stories claim. ” Much like goblins or redcaps, the hobyahs were fierce, frightening creatures that lived in dark forests and menaced humans. Though apparently, there had been only one tribe of hobyahs, and they had met a grisly end. According to legend, the hobyahs had tried to kidnap a farmer and his wife and were eaten by the family dog in the end, so there were no more hobyahs in the world anymore.
But the Wolf snorted. “You're in the Deep Wyld now, boy,” he growled.
“This is the place of old legends and forgotten myths. The hobyahs are alive and well here, and there are a lot of them, if you can't guess by looking at the tracks. ”
Glancing down, I saw he was right. Three-toed prints were scattered haphazardly in the mud between rocks—smal , light tracks with claws on the end of the toes. Here and there a blade of grass was crushed or trampled, and a strong musky odor lingered in the air.
The Wolf sneezed and shook his head, curling his lips in disgust. “Let's keep moving. I can't track anything past this abominable smel . ”
“Wait,” I ordered, and dropped to a knee in the grass at the water's edge, brushing the trampled vegetation. Hobyah prints were everywhere, but there was a shal ow indentation in the grass that faintly resembled…