The iron queen, p.25
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       The Iron Queen, p.25

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 25

 

  “You don’t have to like it,” I said, facing them all. “And you don’t have to trust me. But it seems to me that I’m the best chance you’ve got at stopping the false king. I don’t see any of you volunteering to go into the Iron Realm. If anyone else has a better idea, I’d love to hear it. ”

  Silence for a long moment, broken only by a faint snicker from Puck. Angry, sullen glares were leveled my way, but no one rose to challenge me. Oberon’s face was expressionless, but Mab watched me with a cold, frightening gaze.

  “You are correct, Erlking,” she said at last, turning to Oberon. “Time is of the essence. We will send the half-breed into the wasteland to slay the abomination called the Iron King. If she succeeds, the war will be ours. If she dies—” Mab broke off to look at me, her perfect red lips curling into a smile “—we lose nothing. ”

  Oberon nodded, still expressionless. “I would not send you alone unless it was of gravest circumstances, daughter,” he continued. “I know I ask much of you, but you have surprised me before. I only pray you surprise me again. ”

  “She won’t be alone,” Ash said softly, startling everyone. The prince moved beside me to face the war council, his face and voice firm. “Goodfellow and I are going with her. ”

  The Erlking gazed at him. “I thought as much, knight,” he mused. “And I admire your loyalty, though I fear it will destroy you in the end. But…do what you must. We will not stop you. ”

  “I still think you a fool, boy,” Mab said, turning her cold glare on her youngest son. “Were it up to me, I would have torn out your throat to keep you from speaking that oath. But if you insist upon going with the girl, the Unseelie Court has something that might help. ”

  I blinked in surprise, and Oberon turned to Mab, raising an eyebrow. Obviously, this was news to him, too. But the Winter Queen ignored him, her black eyes shifting to me, dark and feral.

  “Does this surprise you, half-breed?” She sniffed in disdain. “Believe what you will, I have no desire to see my last son dead. If Ash insists on following you into the Iron Realm again, he will need something that will protect him from the poison of that place. My smiths have been working on a charm that could possibly shield the bearer from the Iron glamour. They tell me it is almost ready. ”

  My heart leaped. “What is it?”

  Mab smiled, cold and brittle, and turned to the watching fey. “Leave,” she hissed. “All of you, except the girl and her protectors, get out. ”

  The Winter faeries straightened immediately and left, exiting the clearing without a backward glance. The Summer knights looked questioningly at Oberon, who dismissed them with a curt nod. Reluctantly, they drew back, bowed to their king, and followed the Winter fey out of the tent, leaving us alone with the rulers of Faery.

  Oberon gave Mab a level stare. “Hiding things from the Summer Court, Lady Mab?”

  “Do not take that tone with me, Lord Oberon. ” Mab narrowed her eyes at him. “You would do the same, as well. I look out for my own, no others. ” She raised her hands and clapped once. “Heinzelmann, bring in the abomination. ”

  The grass rustled as three small men with lizardlike features melted from the shadows and padded up to the table. Smaller than dwarves, they barely came up to my knee, but they weren’t gnomes or brownies or goblins. I shot a questioning look at Ash, and he grimaced.

  “Kobolds,” he said. “They’re the smiths for the Unseelie Court. ”

  The kobolds carried a cage between them, made of inter-locking branches that glowed with Summer glamour, trapping whatever was inside. Peering out at us, hissing and snarling and shaking the bars of its cage, was a gremlin. I couldn’t help but cringe when I saw the creature. Gremlins were Iron faeries, but so chaotic and wild, not even the other Iron fey wanted them around. They lived in machines and computers and would often congregate in huge swarms, usually where they could do the most damage. They were spindly, ugly little creatures, sort of a cross between a naked monkey and a wingless bat, with long arms, flared-out ears, and razor-sharp teeth that glowed neon-blue when they smiled.

  I understood now why Mab wanted everyone else gone. The gremlin might not have survived its trek to the table, as one or more knights would probably have cut it down as soon as they saw it. Oberon watched the hissing faery with the look of someone observing a particularly disgusting insect, but did nothing more than blink.

  The kobolds heaved the cage onto the table, where the gremlin snarled and spat at us, flitting from one side of the container to the next. The largest kobold, a yellow-eyed creature with bushy hair, grinned, flicking his tongue like a lizard.

  “It isss ready, Queen Mab,” he hissed. “Would you like to perform the ritual?”

  Mab’s smile was thoroughly frightening. “Give me the amulet, Heinzelmann. ”

  The kobold handed her something that flashed briefly in the dim light. Still smiling, the Winter Queen turned back to the gremlin, watching it with a predatory gleam in her eyes. The gremlin snarled at her. Raising her fist, the queen began chanting, words I didn’t understand, words that rippled with power, swirling around her like a vortex. I felt a pull on the inside, as if my soul was straining to leave my body and fly into that whirlwind. I gasped and felt Ash take my hand, squeezing it tightly as if he feared I would fly away, as well. The gremlin arched its back, mouth gaping, and gave a piercing wail. I saw a dark, ragged wisp, like a dirty cloud, rise up from the gremlin’s mouth and get pulled into the vortex. Mab continued to chant, and like a tornado being sucked down a drain, the vortex vanished into whatever she held in her hand. The gremlin collapsed, twitching, sparks jumping off its body to fizzle on the stone. With a final shudder, it was still.

  My mouth was dry as Mab turned back to us, a triumphant look on her face.

  “What did you do to it?” I demanded hoarsely.

  Mab raised her hand. An amulet dangled by a thin silver chain, flashing like a drop of water in the sun. It was a tiny thing, shaped like a teardrop, held in place by prongs of ice. The teardrop was as clear as glass, and I could see something writhing like smoke on the inside.

  “We have found a way to trap the Iron creature’s life essence,” Mab purred, sounding horribly pleased with herself. “If the amulet works, it will draw the Iron glamour from the wearer into itself, cleansing and protecting him from the poison. You will even be able to touch iron without being burned. Severely, anyway. ” She shrugged. “At least, that is what my smiths tell me. It has not been tested yet. ”

  “And was that the only one?” Ash nodded to the lifeless gremlin, his face uncertain. The creature seemed even smaller in death than in life, as fragile as a pile of twigs. Mab gave a cruel laugh, shaking her head.

  “Oh no, my dear. ” She let the amulet dangle, spinning slowly on its chain.

  “Many, many abominations went into the making of this charm. Which is why we could not hand them out to just anyone. Capturing the creatures alive proved…difficult. ”

  “And—” I stared at the writhing mist within the glass, feeling faintly ill “—

  you have to kill them to make it work?”

  “This is war, human. ” Mab’s voice was cold and remorseless. “It is either kill or be destroyed ourselves. ” The queen sniffed, gazing contemptuously at the twisted body of the gremlin. “The Iron fey are corrupting our home and poisoning our people. I think this fair exchange, don’t you?”

  I wasn’t sure about that, but Puck cleared his throat, drawing our attention.

  “Hate to sound greedy and all,” he said, “but is ice-boy the only one who gets a shiny piece of jewelry? Seeing as there are three of us going into the Iron Realm. ”

  Mab gave him an icy glare. “No, Robin Goodfellow,” she said, making Puck’s name sound like a curse. “The creature that showed us how to make these insisted you get one, too. ” She gestured, and Heinzelmann the kobold approached Puck with a grin, handing out another amulet on a chain. T
his one had vines curled around the glass instead of ice, but they were otherwise identical. Puck grinned as he looped it around his neck, giving Mab a slight bow, which she ignored.

  Beckoning Ash forward, Mab draped the amulet around his neck as he bowed. “This is the best we can do for you,” she said as Ash straightened, and for a moment, the Winter Queen looked almost regretful, staring at her son. “If you cannot defeat the Iron King, then we are all lost. ”

  “We won’t fail,” Ash said softly, and Mab placed a palm on his cheek, gazing at him like she would not see him again.

  “One last thing,” she added as Ash stepped back. “The magic in the amulet is not permanent. It will weaken and corrode over time, and eventually it will shatter altogether. The smiths also tell me that any use of glamour will hasten the charm’s destruction, as will direct contact with anything made of iron. How long that will take, they are not sure. But they do agree on one thing—it will not last forever. Once you enter the Iron Realm, you have a limited time to find your target and kill him. So, I would hurry if I were you, Meghan Chase. ”

  Oh, of course, I thought, as my gut twisted and sank down to my toes. This impossible situation also comes with a time limit. No pressure.

  “Queen Mab!”

  The shout, high-pitched and gravelly, echoed from beyond the clearing, and a moment later a leafy bush scurried into the tent and danced around at Mab’s feet. It took me a moment to realize it was a goblin with leaves and twigs glued to its clothes, making it blend perfectly into a forest environment.

  “Queen Mab!” it rasped. “Iron fey! Snigg spotted many Iron fey camped at the edge of the wasteland! Sound alarm! Ready weapons! Run, run!”

  Mab swooped down and in a blindingly quick gesture, grabbed the frantic goblin by the throat, lifting it into the air.

  “How many of them are there?” she asked softly, as the goblin choked and kicked weakly in her grip, his leafy camouflage bobbing.