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The Iron Knight, Page 25

Julie Kagawa

Page 25


  And with that, he turned, becoming a straight, nearly invisible line, and disappeared.

  Ariel a sighed, pressing close to me. I felt her shoulder touch mine and resisted the urge to put my arms around her. “Looks like we're staying here a little while, after all . ”

  “Only as long as the ferry takes to arrive. ” I could feel eyes in the mist and shadows around me, and that strange pul tugged at my insides.

  “Come on. Let's find that inn and get out of the street. ”

  Like the thin man promised, it wasn't difficult to find the inn, a large, two-story structure on stilts that leaned over the water as if it might topple into the river at any moment. Not surprisingly, it was empty as we walked through the door into a dark, gloomy foyer, the ever-present mist coiling along the f loor and around the scattered tables.

  “Huh. ” Puck's voice echoed off the wall s as we ventured cautiously inside. His boots creaked horribly against the wooden f loor as he circled the room. “Hel oooooo, room service? Bel boys? Can anyone take my luggage to my suite? Guess this inn is self-serve. ”

  “The rooms are upstairs,” whispered a voice, and an old woman slithered down from the ceiling. She was more spiderweb than anything, fraying at the edges, though the eyes in the cloudy face were sharp and black. “Five guests? Good, good. You can each choose one.

  Except for him—” She pointed at the Wolf, who curled a lip at her. “He can take the big room on the end. ”

  “Good enough,” I said, secretly relieved for the chance to rest. Whether I was stil feeling the effects of the hobyah poison or my body was simply reacting to the strain of keeping everyone alive, I was tired, more weary then I had been in a while. I knew the others were feeling it, too. Ariel a looked exhausted, and Grimalkin had somehow fal en asleep in her arms, his nose buried under his tail. Even Puck looked wornout beneath his constant energy, and the Wolf didn't seem as alert as he normal y was, though his temper was definitely wearing thin.

  Upstairs, the rooms were smal , each containing a table and a single bed beneath a tiny round window. Gazing out, I saw the River of Dreams stretching away beneath me, and the lonely dock in the distance, nearly swal owed up by the mist.

  For just a moment, I couldn't remember why I wanted to go to the dock, though I knew it was important. Shaking my head as memory returned, I sat on the thin mattress, rubbing my eyes. Tired. I was just tired. As soon as the ferry arrived, we could leave this place, and continue toward the edge of the world. And then the Testing Grounds, where I would finally reach the end of my quest. And then my fate would be decided. I'd return to Meghan as a human with a soul, or I wouldn't return at all . That simple.

  Lying back, I put an arm over my face, and everything faded away.

  I was kneeling in a field of bloody snow, countless bodies of Winter and Summer fey surrounding me.

  I was standing before Queen Mab, my sword plunged deep in her chest, her dimming eyes fil ed with shock.

  I was sitting on a throne of ice with my queen beside me, a beautiful faery with long silver hair and eyes of starlight.

  I was standing on the field of battle once more, watching my army tear through the enemy forces, feeling a savage glee as they kill ed and maimed and destroyed without mercy. The darkness in me reveled in the blood, drank in the pain, and spread it as far as it could go. But no matter how much pain I felt, the emptiness swal owed it, demanding more, always more. I was a black hole of death, needing to kill , needing to fil the terrible nothingness that existed inside. I'd become a demon, soul ess and without pity, and not even Ariel a's presence could sate the despair that drove me to slaughter everything I had once cared for. Only one thing would stop me, and every death, every life I destroyed, brought me that much closer.

  She came for me in the end, as I knew she would. I'd made certain it would be her. The terrible Iron Queen, her eyes fil ed with fury and sorrow, facing me across the ravaged fields of the Nevernever. The days of her pleading with me, trying to reason with me, were long gone. I didn't remember why I wanted to see her; I didn't even remember my own name. But I knew she was the reason for my emptiness.

  She was the reason for everything.

  She'd grown stronger during the long years of the war, infinitely more powerful, a true Queen of Faery. I'd kill ed so many of her subjects, so many fey had died by my hands, but it was the death of a certain Summer Court jester that finally pushed her over the edge. We faced each other, Iron Queen and Unseelie King, as the cold wind howled around us, and knew that whatever feelings we'd once had for each other didn't matter now.

  We'd chosen our paths, and now, one way or another, this war would end. Today, one of us would die.

  The Iron Queen raised her sword, the sickly light gleaming down the edges of the steel blade as Iron glamour f lared around her, a mael-strom of deadly power. I saw her lips move, a name on them, perhaps mine, and felt nothing. My glamour rose up to meet hers, cold and dangerous, and our powers slammed into each other with the roar of dueling dragons.

  Flashes of images, like broken mirror shards, fal ing to the earth. Iron and ice, clashing against each other. Rage and hate, swirling in vicious, ugly colors around us. Glamour and pain and blood.

  Myself, deliberately failing to stop the blow that would kill me. The point of a saber, piercing my chest…

  I blinked, and the world slowed. I lay on my back, a dul throbbing in the vicinity of my heart, cold and numb and unable to make my body move.

  Above me, the Iron Queen's face fil ed my vision, beautiful and strong, though her face was streaked with tears. She knelt, smoothing the hair from my forehead, her fingers trailing a line of heat across my skin.

  I blinked again, and for just a moment, I was the one kneeling in the dirt, clutching the Iron Queen's body to my chest, screaming into the wind.

  Her fingers lingered on my cheek, and I gazed up at her, my vision starting to go fuzzy and dark. A tear splashed against my skin and in that instant, the old me regretted everything; everything that had brought us here, everything I had done. I tried to speak, to beg forgiveness, to tel her not to remember me like this, but my voice failed me and I couldn't force the words out.

  From the corner of my eye, I sensed another presence, watching us from the shadows. It seemed terribly invasive, until I realized it didn't belong here, that it was somehow separate from this reality.

  Meghan bent down, and though I couldn't hear her, I saw her lips murmur, “Goodbye, Ash. ” Then those lips touched my forehead and the darkness f looded in.



  “Prince. ”

  I groaned.

  “Prince. ” Something patted my chin. “Wake up. ” Shifting on the mattress, I struggled to open my eyes. There was a solid weight sitting on my chest, but exhaustion was making my lids heavy and awkward. I was tired; I wanted to sink back into oblivion, despite the disturbing dreams that waited for me.

  “Hmm. For such a well -trained, somewhat paranoid warrior, you are certainly difficult to rouse. Very well . ” The weight on my chest slid off, much to my relief, and I heard a thump as it dropped to the f loor and walked away. “We shal have to resort to more drastic measures. ”

  Just as I was wondering what “drastic measures” were, a patter of footsteps scampered toward the bed. There was a brief pause…and then that solid, heavy weight landed square on my stomach.

  “Oof!” I bolted upright with a gasp, the breath driven from my lungs in a painful, vicious expulsion. Instantly awake, I clutched my ribs and glared at Grimalkin, sitting on the bed with a smug, pleased expression on his face.

  “All right,” I gritted out, breathing slowly to dispel the nausea, “you have my attention. What do you want, cat?”

  “Ah,” he purred, as if nothing had happened. “There you are. I was beginning to think you had died in your sleep. ” He stood, waving his tail.

  “We have trouble. The boat is here, and I cannot wake anyone up. ”


  The cat rol ed his eyes. “Yes. Boat. The ferry that you are so eager to take to the End of the World? Did you accidental y hit your head before I woke you?” He peered at me, suddenly serious. “There is something strange going on, prince,” he muttered. “I cannot wake any of the others, and it is not like you to forget something this important. How do you feel?”

  I thought the strangest occurrence was Grimalkin asking about my health, but after a moment I frowned. “Tired,” I admitted. “Almost drained. ”

  Grimalkin nodded. “I thought as much. Something about this place is siphoning your strength, you glamour, even your memories. ” He blinked and shook himself. “Even I am finding it hard to keep my eyes open. Come. ” Turning suddenly, he leaped off the bed. “We must wake the others. If we do not make it to the ferry in time, it will leave, and you will be stuck here forever. ”

  I stood, frowning as the room spun around me. Rubbing my eyes, I started to fol ow Grimalkin, but a faint noise outside the window made me pause.

  Bracing myself against the wall , I looked through the glass and drew in a slow breath.

  The inn was surrounded by Forgotten. Hol ow-eyed, faded and fam-ished looking, they crowded the muddy road, shoulder to shoulder, staring up at me with slack, open mouths. How long had they stood there, sucking away our glamour, our memories? How long before we became like them, empty and hol ow, black holes drawing in every little bit of life?

  I stumbled back from the window and into the hal , where Grimalkin waited for me, lashing his tail.

  “Hurry,” he hissed, and trotted into the next room. I shook the cobwebs out of my head and fol owed.

  A girl lay on the bed, shifting and moaning as if in the throes of a nightmare, her long silver hair spread over the pil ow. For one heart-stopping moment, I couldn't remember her name, though I knew she was important to me. The sudden worry and protectiveness I felt when I saw her proved it was true.

  “Go to her,” Grimalkin said, backing away. “Wake her up. I will attempt to rouse Goodfel ow once more. Perhaps he will waken if claws are ap-plied in a strategical y important area. Then you can all tackle the dog.